Romney opens up nine-point lead over Gingrich in Florida poll

Mitt Romney has opened up a 9-point lead over Newt Gingrich in Florida, according to a Quinnipiac University poll of likely Republican primary voters released Friday.

Romney held a slim 2-point margin over Gingrich in the same poll only two days ago, and on Thursday he enjoyed a strong debate performance in Jacksonville, where he put Gingrich on the defensive several times.

Romney took 38 percent in the Quinnipiac poll, followed by Gingrich at 29 percent, Ron Paul at 14 percent and Rick Santorum at 12 percent.

At Thursdays debate, Romney scored by criticizing a negative Gingrich ad on immigration, and for turning the tables on Gingrich when the former House Speaker brought up questions about Romneys wealth and tax filings, including a Swiss bank account. 

On immigration, Romney hit Gingrich hard for saying Romney is the most anti-immigrant candidate in the GOP field.

“Thats simply inexcusable. Thats inexcusable, Romney told Gingrich. He then noted that Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioColbert: Students taking action on gun violence 'give me hope' Lawmakers feel pressure on guns Florida lawmaker's aide fired after claiming shooting survivors were 'actors' MORE (R-Fla.), the front-runner for the GOP vice presidential nomination, had called on Gingrich to pull the ad. 

“The idea that Im anti-immigrant is repulsive, Romney said in a scolding tone and to applause from the crowd. “Dont use a term like that … Im glad that Marco Rubio called you out on it. Im glad you withdrew it. I think you should apologize for it, and I think you should recognize that having differences of opinions on issues does not justify labeling people with highly charged epithets.

Later, when Gingrich said Romney had profited from investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac while Florida homeowners were being foreclosed on, Romney turned the tables on Gingrich, asking him if he realized that he also had investments in the government-backed mortgage holders. He gave his strongest defense to date of his own investments, which he noted were picked through a blind trust.

Gingrich came under criticism for his comment earlier this week about starting a lunar colony on the moon, something Romney and the other GOP candidates suggested was unrealistic and too expensive for government involvement.

The Quinnipiac poll was taken before Thursdays debate, but still held favorable news for Romney, who already was seen more favorably than Gingrich. Sixty-one percent have a positive view of Romney, compared to only 50 percent who have the same view of Gingrich. Romney hopes those numbers keep moving in his direction after the debate.

Romney did not emerge completely unscathed Thursday. Santorum hit the former Massachusetts governor hard for that states healthcare law, arguing Romney would be a weak GOP candidate against President Obama on that key issue. 

Florida is an expensive media market, and Gingrich, who can’t match Romney in fundraising, has relied on the debates to build momentum. But with no debates left before Tuesdays Florida primary vote, Gingrich will have to find another way to derail Romney.

Gingrich entered the Sunshine State leading by 6 points, according to Quinnipiac, but has lost the momentum he had after a convincing victory in the South Carolina primary.

Still, the polls have been thoroughly unstable, and with four days remaining before the primary vote, a lot could still happen — 31 percent said they could still change their minds.

Gingrich will need to steal the votes of those who are uncommitted, because Romney likely holds an advantage among the quarter-million early voters who cast their ballots when he had a double-digit lead in the polls.