JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - After two televised debates and a millions of dollars in television advertising -- much of it negative -- Florida's big-stakes presidential primary propelled Mitt Romney into a clear front-runner for the Republican nomination.
Wednesday morning's headlines seen around the country touted Mitt Romney finishing 14 percentage points ahead of his closest challenger, Newt Gingrich.
Upon closer inspection, Romney's margin was huge in South Florida, with the former Massachusetts governor drawing at least 50 percent of the GOP vote in Broward and Palm Beach counties and 61 percent in Miami-Dade County.
The opposite was true in Northeast Florida, where Gingrich won nine of 11 counties. In Duval County, Romney beat Gingrich by only 1,373 votes. [Results from Northeast Florida counties]
Duval County Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland said Romney's margin over Gingrich among early and absentee voters was 12 percent, but Gingrich received the most votes that were cast on Tuesday.
Gingrich supporters in Jacksonville were not depressed on Wednesday. They believe the Jacksonville area is going to be key to a Republican victory in the fall.
"Northeast Florida is considered the most reliably conservative part of the state," said Bert Ralston. "They preformed pretty well for Gingrich. He ran to the right, and this part of the state rewarded him for that."
Political observers agree that Gingrich appealed to the right, noting that the other conservative on Tuesday's ballot -- Rick Santorum -- also performed better in this part of the state.
"I think Jacksonville is still (a) tea party area, and I think the tea party likes their brew a little strong," said Marcella Washington, political science professor at Florida State College at Jacksonville. "I think that speaks to the fact that Newt Gingrich came so close to winning this large city."
Hollands thinks negative ads might have make the difference. Romney and his allies poured more than $14 million into Florida television advertising, primarily to attack Gingrich -- a tactic that turned off some voters.
"The voters starting seeing ads from both of them. And then when you got down to election day, it was almost a dead heat," Holland said. "It looks like, at the end of the day, on Election Day, it made more of a difference for Gingrich than Romney."
Party officials told Channel 4's Jim Piggott they trying to learn what all of that means for the future. They are looking at impact of the debates and how voters responded to the ambush of political ads.
"It probably shows the battleground for the General Election will probably be more of the center of the state and the southern portion," Holland said. "The small counties and the northern portion will be more likely go Republican and conservative."
Election officials said the election went fairly smoothly and yielded a turnout of roughly 41 percent statewide; 45 percent in Jacksonville.
"That's a respectable healthy turnout for a single party primary," Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning said.
Copyright 2012 by News4Jax.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.