Mitt Romney handily won the Florida Republican primary Tuesday night, striding closer to the presidential nomination as the support of women, Hispanics and a broader range of conservatives boosted him in the state.
Tuesday night’s results halted the momentum from rival Newt Gingrich’s win in South Carolina last month and returned Mr. Romney to the familiar position of the race’s clear front-runner.
Many Florida Republicans sought a candidate who they thought could defeat President Barack Obama, with significantly more voters who cited that as their top priority opting for Mr. Romney, according to exit polls.
With more than half of votes counted, Mr. Romney was leading Mr. Gingrich by 47% to 31%.
Mr. Romney drew particularly strong support from women and led among voters across all income groups. Support tilted in favor of Mr. Gingrich among voters who identified themselves as “very conservative,” but by a relatively narrow margin. The two men were nearly neck-and-neck among tea-party supporters and evangelicals, likely weakening Mr. Gingrich’s case in convincing conservatives to coalesce around him.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum was third and Rep. Ron Paul was fourth. Mr. Santorum had 13% of the vote and Mr. Paul 7%, with more than 50% of precincts reporting.
Many viewed the race in Florida—a large and diverse state—as a preview of the conditions the eventual nominee will face in the contest with Mr. Obama.