By SHANNON McCAFFREY
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Trounced in Florida, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich on Tuesday used the defeat to declare that he alone is the conservative alternative to GOP front-runner Mitt Romney.
Gingrich ignored the fact that the other two candidates in the race — Ron Paul and Rick Santorum — chose not to run aggressive campaigns in the state.
"It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate, and the voters of Florida made that clear," Gingrich said following returns that showed him trailing Romney badly.
Gingrich's defiant pledge to continue on against Romney sets the stage for a bitter brawl for the Republican nomination that could last for months. Gingrich supporters Tuesday night hoisted signs that read "46 States to Go."
It was a message, the former House speaker said, to those eager to write his political obituary.
"I just want to reassure everyone, we are going to contest every place and we are going to win and we will be in Tampa as the nominee in August," he said.
Signs pointed to an uphill fight. Gingrich spoke to a half-empty hotel balloon in Orlando where reporters appeared to outnumber supporters. It was a turnabout for a candidate who just 10 days ago bounded to a decisive comeback victory in South Carolina. Gingrich arrived in Florida to huge crowds and a lead in the polls. But a pair of lackluster debate performances a bruising advertising assault by Romney took their toll.
Gingrich never mentioned Romney by name Tuesday night and offered the winner of Florida's primary no words of congratulation.
The two have been locked in an increasingly vicious fight for the Republican nod with Gingrich calling Romney dishonest and his campaign "pathetic." Romney took off the gloves against Gingrich in Florida, assailing his work for Freddie Mac in a state hit hard by the housing bust. He also questioned Gingrich ties to President Ronald Reagan, which left the former Georgia congressman visibly irked.
Gingrich campaigned in Florida with Michael Reagan, son of the late president, as well as Herman Cain, his onetime GOP rival and a tea party favorite.
Despite the loss, Gingrich had appeal with the GOP's conservative base. According to preliminary exit polls, Gingrich carried those voters seeking a true conservative. But he was plagued by questions about electability in the general election. A majority of voters called Romney the candidate best able to defeat Democratic President Barack Obama. Only 3 in 10 said Gingrich could best win in November.
Gingrich now heads to Nevada, which is set to hold caucuses Saturday. Romney won Nevada when he sought the GOP nomination in 2008 and has had a campaign team there for months.
Gingrich's fortunes could rest on Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who remains in the race despite weak showings in South Carolina and now Florida. He was a distant third in both contests. Santorum continues to pull conservative and evangelical support that would likely move to Gingrich if he left the race. Tuesday's results could increase the pressure on Santorum to drop out.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)