JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Mitt Romney's nearly certain victory in Florida's Republican primary on Tuesday wouldn't guarantee him the GOP nomination, but political experts agree it would make it far more likely that he'll be the last candidate standing at the August convention in Tampa.
"I don't think it will lock up the nomination for him but it certainly goes a long way toward pushing him along that path," said Davidson College political science professor Josh Putnam who writes about campaigns and elections on the blog Frontloading HQ.
Poll numbers released Sunday show Romney expanding his lead over his main rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Romney has 48 percent in the Rasmussen Reports poll while Gingrich has 28 percent, the widest margin yet for Romney ahead of Tuesday's primary.
Still, Romney early on was expected to sweep many of the early-voting states and establish himself as the presumptive nominee and that hasn't happened. He won just one of the first three contests, New Hampshire, and even a victory in Florida, with its winner-take-all 50 convention delegates, would barely move him toward the 1,144 delegates he needs for the nomination.
But a decisive Romney victory in Florida would demonstrate the former Massachusetts governor's ability to win a key swing state. Indeed, Sen. John McCain's 2008 victory in Florida was the pivotal win that set him on the path to the GOP nomination. McCain is now campaigning with Romney around the state.
Voters consistently tell pollsters that Romney has the best chance of beating President Obama in the fall, Scott Rasmussen told The Washington Examiner. The only exception was in South Carolina, where voters' beliefs that Gingrich was the most electable helped him win.
"The trend in the race shows that Romney is being perceived as the stronger candidate and that is why he's winning," Rasmussen said.
While it may be difficult for any candidate to slow Romney should he win Florida, that doesn't mean the path to the nomination will be clear, Rasmussen said.
"My caution is that we are still early enough in the process and I can't imagine Gingrich getting out any time soon," he said.
Gingrich is already promising to stay in the race until the Tampa convention. He said Sunday that he believes there will be a coalition of conservative delegates in Tampa unwilling to back Romney, who they consider too moderate, and that will force a negotiation over who will be the party's nominee, a rarity in modern times.
Putnam, of Davidson College, acknowledged that a brokered convention was possible, but considers it a long shot since most delegates must support the candidate who wins their state primary.
If Gingrich hopes to be the nominee, Putnam said, he has to win future primaries and caucuses.
Romney is outspending Gingrich in Florida by $12 million and remains the best organized and financed candidate in the race, advantages difficult for opponents to overcome.
"The odds still heavily favor a clear decision during the primary season," University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato told The Examiner. "At some point, if the [his rivals'] money dries up and the percentage of the vote dwindles from week to week, reality crashes down like a stage curtain."