ORLANDO, Fla. — The race for the GOP presidential nomination probably is far from over. Front-runner Mitt Romney's rivals – chief among them Newt Gingrich – are refusing to bow out despite his resounding Florida victory.
New rules for awarding delegates to this summer's Republican nominating convention give even losing candidates little incentive to drop out. And so-called "super" political action committees have proven they can keep even the most cash-strapped campaigns alive by accepting unlimited donations from individuals to run ads on their behalf.
"All of them have earned the opportunity to keep going," said David Azbell, an Alabama Republican consultant said of the candidates. "We're only four primaries in for goodness sake."
Indeed, some 46 states have yet to vote and only 6 percent of the delegates have been won.
"I understand that people are concerned about how long the primary process is dragging out," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday. "I think everybody just needs to realize that this will resolve itself."
His assurances aside, the likelihood that the primary will stretch into the spring or beyond has some Republicans fretting about their eventual nominee emerging battered and broke, only to have little time to prepare for what promises to be an intense fall campaign against President Barack Obama.
"Dealing with the residue of a very tough primary battle can be a difficult problem," acknowledged former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu.
Others, Romney included, are defending a protracted nominating fight as a test of strength, even though a long battle risks tearing an already fractured GOP even further apart.
"We are looking for a full-spectrum conservative, substantively and politically skilled – not possible to discern in a couple of contests," said Mary Matalin, a veteran GOP presidential campaign operative.
But she added: "A possible concern of protraction is not duration but acrimony." She recalled the fight between Republicans Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan in 1976, when Democrat Jimmy Carter won and said: "That one was ideological. This one is personal."
Former Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas said Romney's Florida victory makes clear "that he's going to be the likely nominee. Yet, Hutchinson also downplayed the notion that a protracted fight would aide Democrats, saying: "Only if (the Republican contest) is a negative campaign does it benefit them."
Said Azbell: "We're kind of in a Catch-22 situation. We don't want to be hurt by a long primary but we also don't want to be stuck with a nominee that the public cannot coalesce behind."
In his victory speech Tuesday night, Romney sought to turn his bitterly personal fight with Gingrich into a positive light, even as he all but urged the GOP to rally behind his candidacy.
"A competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us," Romney told supporters in Tampa, Fla. "And when we gather here in Tampa seven months from now for our convention, ours will be a united party with a winning ticket for America."
Even if he loses throughout February in states considered friendly territory for him, Romney is likely to press on given his organizational advantages, big campaign account and personal fortune.
Gingrich, for his part, is showing no signs of budging.
"We are going to contest every place and we are going to win and we are going to be in Tampa as the nominee in August," the former Georgia congressman vowed anew to cheering supporters in Orlando, Fla., standing in front of a screen with the words "46 states to go" projected upon it.
Gingrich's backers dismissed any notion that a long primary season could hurt the eventual nominee.
"If we can continue with a true and spirited debate then I don't think it can hurt us," said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., who has endorsed Gingrich. But a negative campaign among Republicans, he said, "will hurt the Republican party in the general" election.
Rep. Phil Gingrey, a fellow Georgian and Gingrich supporter, added: "I don't see any problem with this going all the way to the convention."
Several factors are making that scenario seem far more likely than in years past.
Firstly, Gingrich is a stubborn, savvy and shrewd politician who is determined to mount a third comeback in this campaign, arguably his last foray in national politics after a long career. A decade after leaving the House in disgrace, Gingrich, 68, launched his presidential campaign only to implode just weeks later. He rose again in December only to be pounded by Romney's allies on TV in Iowa. It wasn't long before he regrouped again and won South Carolina. He's showing little evidence of giving in now.
The libertarian-leaning Texas Rep. Ron Paul is equally set on gutting it out through the primary season in hopes of winning enough delegates to ensure that his contingent of fired-up budget hawks and limited-government advocates are represented at the convention. He is planning to compete in the organizationally intensive caucus states ahead.
And former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum – who hasn't won a state since his narrow, late-decided victory in Iowa – is reveling in a huge dose of national exposure that's certain to pay off when the contest ends. He has little reason to bow out as long as the money keeps flowing.
New Republican Party rules governing how delegates are awarded – proportionally in most early states rather than winner-take-all as in past years – mean that all four candidates can make the argument that they're winning, even if they come in second, third or fourth. There are a total of 2,286 delegates up for grabs, with 1,144 needed to clinch the nomination. Most states still have to weigh in.
Romney added to his lead in the delegate count with his Florida victory, bringing his total to 87. Some of the competition's biggest prizes such as Texas and New York are not until April. The biggest, California, is not until June. No candidate can clinch the nomination before late March, and with states awarding delegates proportionally, there probably won't be a presumptive nominee until at least April.
The explosion of super PACs is seemingly the largest factor fueling the possibility of a long primary season.
All of the candidates are benefiting from these outside groups that are closely aligned with them but operate independently of their campaigns.
The best example of candidate being kept afloat by these groups came as an all-but-broke Gingrich headed to South Carolina. That's when the super PAC called Winning Our Future, run by a former Gingrich aide, received a $5 million donation from Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to air ads intended to help Gingrich. He ended up winning South Carolina.
The group got $5 million more from Adelson's wife as the race turned to Florida. The group has said it will continue to advertise in primary states as long as Gingrich is a candidate. Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich aide who run the group, pledged to "be in Nevada and every other place we need to be as long as we can."
That said, a string of defeats in February will increase pressure on losing candidates to take stock as Republicans look to the fall – and Obama.
Kellman reported from Washington. Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington also contributed to this report.