ORLANDO, Fla. -- It was like the election never happened.
Long before the official results came out in Florida, before Newt Gingrich arrived for his election night rally and before most supporters had even showed up, the Gingrich campaign put a sign on the stage reading, "46 states to go." No mention of Florida, the state that was actually having the election contest on Tuesday. The Gingrich camp was moving on.
From the beginning to the end of Gingrich's election night party, the campaign and its supporters seemed to be operating outside of realities, denying the importance of this large state's primary contest and insisting that victory was going to be theirs as soon as voters opened their eyes and truly saw Florida winner Mitt Romney as a "Massachusetts moderate." Gingrich, in fact, never even congratulated Romney on his win.
Romney's victory wasn't a surprise. Polls had him with a double-digit lead in the run-up to Florida's election, and his campaign was preparing a line of retreat (even as Gingrich was still publicly saying he would "win a decisive victory" on Tuesday).
The down-but-not-out mood was perhaps best reflected in the music chosen for the Gingrich party. The first song of the night was "Don't You Want Me" by The Human League. Others included "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" by Pat Benatar and a remix of "I've Had The Time Of My Life."
News of Romney's win came via large televisions and speakers tuned to Fox News. The network declared Romney the expected winner as the polls closed at 8 p.m. There were no groans and no screams from the Gingrich supporters in the ballroom at the Rosen Centre Hotel. Everyone seemed to know what was coming. (In contrast, Romney party-goers cheered wildly when the results came in.)
In fact, few Gingrich supporters even bothered to show up in time for the results. The room was so sparsely filled at 8 p.m. that reporters had to compete with each other to interview attendees.
"We were expecting something like that," said Nancy Acevedo, a Winter Springs resident and chairwoman of the Florida Republican Hispanic Alliance, pointing to all the anti-Gingrich ads and media coverage as culprits. "We have 46 states more to go. It's not the end. It's just the beginning."
Gingrich's speech on Tuesday night could have been given on any other day. He barely acknowledged the Florida results, rehashing the talking points he has been using all week about Obama's war on religion, the executive orders he wants to issue if he takes office and even a well-worn crack about the media asking him too often about dropping out.
Gingrich reiterated that he sees his path to victory through a consolidation of the conservative base against Romney.
"I think Florida did something very important, coming on top of South Carolina. It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader Newt Gingrich and the Massachusetts moderate," he said to applause, not actually naming Romney.
"We are going to contest every place, and we are going to win. And we will be in Tampa as the nominee," he added.
Gingrich's backers also seemed unfazed by the Florida results, as if the 50 delegates in their state were nothing.
"We'll come back, we'll come back," Orlando resident Lou Marin assured The Huffington Post.
"He needs to go down all the way to the convention," added Acevedo. "We'll get him elected as the nominee. Because eventually I think that the other two candidates [Ron Paul and Rick Santorum] will just abandon the race" and conservatives will coalesce around Gingrich.
Indeed, the first words of the first speaker of the night were not even about Florida. They instead looked to the contests ahead.
"Forty-six states to go. And I want you all to know: It's not over," said Rich Crotty, a former mayor of Orange County in Florida.
"Newt comes out of Florida in better shape financially than when he came out of South Carolina," former Florida attorney general Bill McCollum told The Huffington Post. "He's got a situation where he'll be the sole standing person -- really, as a practical matter -- to run against Romney in states that will be far more receptive than Florida has been. And he'll have money to combat. Romney won't be able to spend his money on all these states on the same level as expenditure as he just did."
The only way Gingrich should pull out before the convention, added McCollum, is if Romney "gets a clear 1,144 delegates that are absolutely uncontested." That is the number needed to win the GOP nomination.
"It will be very hard to get to the 1,144 delegates for anybody -- and certainly not to get there quickly," McCollum predicted.
Despite this enthusiasm, Gingrich has a tough road ahead. While his campaign is using the motto of "46 states to go," that's not technically accurate. Gingrich did not file on time to qualify for the ballot in Missouri, and he did not collect enough signatures for Virginia. In Tennessee, he did not qualify to win a full slate of delegates.
So for the Gingrich campaign, "Somewhere between 43.5 and 46 states to go" might be a more accurate motto.
Both the Romney and Gingrich campaigns have acknowledged that it will likely be a long primary fight, in part because more states are now awarding delegates proportionally in the GOP primaries.
But as The Huffington Post's Jon Ward pointed out, "The big question mark for Gingrich is how long he can run his campaign if he loses steam and donors, and if the biggest donor of all -- Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson -- decides to stop depositing $5 million checks in the bank account of the super PAC supporting Gingrich."
Stage before Gingrich speech:
Check out the slideshow below for more on the Gingrich campaign.
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