Romney looks for Florida knockout

ORLANDO, Fla. — With just one full day of campaigning left before the most important primary on the Republican calendar to date, Mitt Romney’s camp is hoping for a decisive victory that would all but end the GOP nomination fight.

Polls in Florida show Newt Gingrich falling behind Romney, who dominated the former Speaker in a Thursday night debate that had been seen as a make-or-break moment for both candidates.

Two new polls released Saturday and Sunday showed Romney holding double-digit leads over Gingrich here. In The Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald/Tampa Bay Times poll released Saturday night, Romney led Gingrich 42 percent to 31 percent, while an NBC News/Marist poll released Sunday showed Romney leading 42 percent to 27 percent.

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Romney’s financial and organizational advantages have made themselves felt, while the conservative establishment has launched a full-throated assault on Gingrich after his stunning victory in the South Carolina primary.

Put it all together, and Romney could be closing in on a pivotal victory in the battle for the GOP presidential nomination.

“If Romney walks out of Florida Tuesday night with a win, Florida has picked the Republican nominee,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist in the state who is not aligned with any of the candidates.

The race will continue beyond Florida, and Gingrich has no plans to throw in the towel. “I will go all the way to the convention. I expect to win the nomination,” he told reporters in Port St. Lucie on Saturday. Underlining his defiance, he also asked the media, “Why don’t you ask Gov. Romney what he will do if he loses, since he is behind in both national polls?”

Romney might not be behind in those national polls for long, however. Gallup’s daily national tracking poll Sunday afternoon showed Gingrich leading him by just 28 percent to 26 percent, an overnight drop from the 32 -26 percent lead Gingrich held Saturday. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) had 15 percent of the national vote Sunday and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) had 14 percent.

The races after Florida will be fought on some favorable territory for Romney, including Nevada, which has a large Mormon population, and Michigan, where Romney’s father served as governor.

Romney’s fundraising prowess and well-developed campaign infrastructure also give him an advantage over the long haul. 

Romney has grown in confidence in Florida as the days have ticked by, mocking Gingrich as “Goldilocks” Friday for his complaints about the behavior of audiences at debates. “The porridge is too hot, the porridge is too cold,” he said.

Gingrich, meanwhile, has vacillated in tone. On Friday, as his campaign unleashed an especially harsh attack on Romney’s integrity, Gingrich delivered a lengthy speech to a Jewish Republican organization during which he abjured even the mention of Romney’s name. It was only during the question-and-answer portion that he turned to criticize the former Massachusetts governor — and, even then, he did so only mildly.

At a Saturday morning fundraiser for the Martin County Republican Party, he again avoided mentioning Romney at all. Yet, at his very next stop, he blasted him as “dishonest” and raised the issue of Romney’s recently acknowledged low rate of effective taxation.

Assuming that the polls are not totally wrong, Gingrich is running out of time to make an impact. 

“If Romney wins, it will really put Newt back on his heels a little bit,” said Republican strategist Dan Judy, whose firm worked for the now-defunct Jon Huntsman campaign. “Newt had tremendous momentum coming out of South Carolina and, if Romney wins, it really makes it much harder for Newt to raise money, for a start.”

The argument that Romney’s muscle will prevail in the end over the mercurial Gingrich is one that Romney’s supporters embrace with enthusiasm.

Brett Doster, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign in Florida, acknowledged to The Hill that Gingrich had “a good head of steam” in the wake of the South Carolina result. But, he added: “You have to be capable of creating your own momentum. As he began to run up against the work we have been doing here in the past months, his momentum has slowed down.”

Gingrich has also been slowed by the criticism he has received from senior figures in the party, both in Washington and Florida. In the latter, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, though both nominally neutral, have offered sharp criticism of Gingrich in recent days.

More controversially, Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and Charlie Bass (R-N.H.), all avowed Romney supporters, have shadowed Gingrich at a number of events.

Confronted at one such event, in Delray Beach, by Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond, Chaffetz said he was only attending to offer some “perspective.” But Hammond, who goaded Chaffetz in front of the press, added that the congressman’s presence was just one more piece of evidence that “the establishment sticks together.”

That comment illustrated how the Gingrich campaign is seeking to turn the attacks in its favor. Gingrich now condemns “the elites” from both parties at almost every stop, seeking to position himself as the standard-bearer of the many voters who are indignant about one aspect or another of the status quo.

At one Florida stop, Bass expressed amazement to The Hill that “someone who lives in McLean, Va., and has spent years on K Street” could position himself as an outsider to the ways of Washington.

But that personal history may matter less than Gingrich’s maverick image  — one that has been burnished by some high-profile support in the past few days, as former contender Herman Cain endorsed him at a West Palm Beach event on Saturday night and Sarah Palin has become increasingly vocal in defending him.

Cain said that Gingrich was “a patriot” who was “not afraid of bold ideas.” Palin, meanwhile, used an appearance on Fox News to accuse “the establishment” of “trying to crucify this man and … rewrite what it is that he has stood for all these years.” Her language was echoed in a Facebook post where she condemned a “ridiculous opposition dump on Newt.”

Even if such comments have a political motivation, there is no doubt that the prospect of a Gingrich win here strikes fear into the hearts of many Washington Republicans.

“I don’t know that the powers that be would admit it openly, but they are very worried,” said Judy. He added that party leaders were “concerned not just about Gingrich performing badly and losing to Obama, but they are also worried about him dragging down Republicans across the country.”

A Romney win on Tuesday would produce a collective sigh of relief from the Republican establishment.

For Gingrich, there is the hope — even if it is a slim one  —  that the grassroots insurgents who have become more influential in the party in recent years can yet deliver him a big upset. 

It’s down to the wire.