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Romney heads west with the most Republican money, organization _ but also a new verbal gaffe
WASHINGTON (AP) ' The Republican presidential campaign rolled westward Wednesday, Mitt Romney riding herd after his Florida primary victory, Newt Gingrich looking for a new stake and a top party leader insisting the long trail won't necessarily hurt the GOP in the race against President Barack Obama.
Already the television ads were showing up in states that vote next, caucuses in Nevada on Saturday, in Minnesota and Colorado next Tuesday and in Maine the following weekend.
"I'm feeling like we've got a good pathway ahead," Romney declared in a television interview on the day after his Florida triumph.
He is favored in Nevada, where there are 28 Republican National Convention delegates at stake. And, alone among the contenders, appears to have the money to compete aggressively in all the other states as well.
Gingrich decamped from Florida but with prospects considerably dimmer than Romney's.
He was conceding nothing. Routed on Tuesday night, the former House speaker vowed to stay in the race until the party convention next summer. And his decision not to telephone the primary winner with congratulations drew notice.
"I guess Speaker Gingrich doesn't have our phone number," Romney said.
The Florida campaign was marked by millions of dollars in negative ads, and Gingrich's promise to remain in the race raised the prospect of a months-long struggle. But current House Speaker John Boehner said he was not concerned.,
"I would remind people that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a fight that went through June of 2008. I think everybody just needs to realize that this will resolve itself," he said.
Jubilant in victory on Tuesday night, Romney was thrown onto the defensive the day after. "I'm not concerned about the very poor" because they have a social safety net, he said on CNN. Criticized quickly, he hastened to clarify.
"No, no, no, no, no, no, no," Romney told reporters on his campaign plane when asked about the comments. He referred back to his complete remarks, in which he had said he would focus on middle-income Americans rather than the very poor, who get government help, or the very rich, who don't need it. "My energy is going to be devoted to helping middle-income people," he said.
By then, though, he was drawing criticism from conservatives who worried he was showing a penchant for verbal gaffes as well as from Obama's campaign manager. "So much for 'we're all in this together,'" tweeted Jim Messina.
Gingrich piled on. " I am fed up with politicians in either party dividing Americans against each other," he said.
After making no significant campaign effort in Florida, former Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul looked for better days in the contests just ahead.
Santorum picked up an endorsement from former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, known for his hardline position on immigration.
Eager to emerge as the leading conservative in the race, Santorum said Gingrich was nearing the end of his run. "If Newt's out of the race, all his votes come to me," he said, mirroring what the former House speaker frequently says about him.
In a speech in Woodland Park, Colo., Santorum said Romney's nomination would doom the party to defeat in the fall.
"Barack Obama, in a debate or in this election, is going to destroy Mitt Romney on the issue of health care," Santorum warned, saying that the former governor supported a requirement for individuals to purchase health care in Massachusetts that is akin to the provision in the legislation that Obama signed into federal law.
Paul, campaigning in Las Vegas, said he favors an immigration policy that doesn't rely on "barbed wire fences and guns on the border." Appearing before an audience of Hispanics, he said he opposes illegal immigration but also is against any effort to round up and deport individuals who are in the United States illegally.
After a month in which four contests produced three winners, Romney appeared to hold formidable advantages in fundraising and organization to go with a lead in national convention delegates. After winning all 50 at stake in Florida, he had 87 in AP's count. Gingrich had 26 delegates, Rick Santorum had 14 and Ron Paul had four. It takes 1,144 to win the nomination.
Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show Romney's campaign had $20 million on hand as of Jan. 1 and Restore Our Future, an outside group that supports him, had $23.6 million.
The total of $43.6 million dwarfs figures reported by the other contenders and the groups that back them, although the onset of the 2012 caucuses and primaries was certain to have produced changes.
Figures from Florida show Romney and Restore Our Future spent more than $15 million on television ads combined, many of which attacked Gingrich. The former speaker and an organization that backs him spent less than $4 million.
Already, Romney and Restore our Future were airing ads in Nevada, as was Paul.
Paul also was on the air in Minnesota, along with the Red White and Blue Fund, which support Santorum.
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott and Beth Fouhy in Colorado, Kasie Hunt in Minnesota, Laurie Kellman in Washington and Shannon McCaffrey in Nevada contributed to this story.