By Niall Stanage and Josh Lederman - 01/31/12 10:00 AM EST
TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney appears poised to win Florida’s primary on Tuesday, coming back from prior stumbles to emerge a stronger, more confident candidate.
Most polls show him leading Newt Gingrich by double digits — a Suffolk University poll out Monday had him up by 20 points — creating a high expectation for the former Massachusetts governor.
If Gingrich keeps Romney to a single-digit victory, it could abate calls for the former Speaker to exit the race.
Romney took an anticipatory victory lap on Monday at a packed rally in Dunedin, Fla.
“What a day this is,” Romney said to an energized crowd. “I’ll tell you, with a turnout like this, I think we might win tomorrow, what do you think?”
But Romney had a running start on the ground game. He was the first candidate on air in the expensive media market, and had his state team in place long before his rivals.
After all, it was Florida that essentially decided the 2008 nomination, with John McCain’s win there (Romney came in second).
And if Romney wins by double digits on Tuesday, he would be in an exceptionally strong position in the overall contest. A number of upcoming states look favorable for him.
Nevada, which holds its caucuses Feb. 4, has a substantial Mormon population, and Romney can draw on a reservoir of good will in Michigan, which holds its primary on Feb. 28, because his father was a popular governor of the state. He’s favored to win in Maine, Minnesota and Colorado — which vote Feb. 7 — and in Arizona, which holds its contest at the end of the month.
A big win in Florida would also lay to rest the ghosts of South Carolina, where Romney suffered a 12-point defeat at Gingrich’s hands on Jan. 21. In addition to delivering a shot of momentum to the former Speaker, the result resurrected serious doubts about Romney’s candidacy.
But it also set fire to the former governor’s campaign. He criticized Gingrich heavily in his South Carolina concession speech — attacks he kept up in Florida and in his strong debate performance last Thursday.
On Sunday, Romney spent one-quarter of his address at a rally in Naples, Fla., pummeling the ex-Speaker. And on Monday, he lunged into Gingrich within seconds of taking the stage in Dunedin.
“I know the Speaker’s not real happy. He’s not feeling very excited these days. I know, it’s sad. He’s been flailing around a little bit,” Romney told the crowd of thousands that packed a public park. “It’s been kind of painfully revealing to watch.”
His fusillade of attacks appeared to have stopped a Gingrich surge. This — assuming there is not a major upset Tuesday night — will be the second occasion on which Romney has halted Gingrich in his tracks, the first having occurred in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses.
Gingrich remains adamant he will stay in the race, however. He has said repeatedly on the trail that he will continue his campaign until the Republican National Convention, which will take place in Tampa at the end of August.
“With your help, we’re going to win a great victory tomorrow. And when we win a great victory tomorrow we will send a signal to George Soros, to Goldman Sachs, to the entire New York and Washington establishment: Money power can’t buy people power,” Gingrich told supporters at a rally in Tampa on Monday.
He has become increasingly insistent that he is the sole conservative alternative to Romney. His argument has been aided by the vocal support of some prominent conservatives who often cast themselves as outsiders, notably Sarah Palin, Herman Cain (who endorsed Gingrich on Saturday night) and Rush Limbaugh.
At this first campaign event Monday, in Jacksonville, a defiant Gingrich proclaimed: “The idea that the conservative movement is going to roll over and give up? It’s not going to happen.”
Speaking to The Hill at that event, Gingrich’s spokesman, R.C. Hammond, sought to set the stage for a battle for delegates that could go all the way to the convention. “We’re going to leave Florida and less than 10 percent of the delegates are going to [have been] awarded,” Hammond said. “The one thing that is a fact is that the nomination will be awarded in Tampa. It will be awarded in August.”
Whether Gingrich has the financial or organizational wherewithal to continue the battle for that length of time is an open question. Full financial disclosure reports from the fourth quarter are due Tuesday, and observers will be scrutinizing how much debt Gingrich is carrying.
And the former Speaker, who did not make the ballot in Missouri, would have to show he has the money to hang on until the Super Tuesday contests March 6, when the calendar becomes more favorable. Among the 10 primary states voting that day are Gingrich’s home state of Georgia and states like Ohio and Tennessee, which provide the opportunity for huge delegate pickups.
But there is no doubt at all about the ill feeling that has now flooded the fight for the nomination.
Gingrich continually described Romney’s campaign against him as “totally dishonest” in recent days.
Hammond told The Hill, “Mitt Romney will lie, he will do it with a smile on his face, he will wash his hands of any facts, of anything that is close to accuracy. He has demonstrated that there is nothing he won’t do to win this campaign.”
— Justin Sink contributed to this report.