TAMPA, Jan 31 – Mitt Romney was poised to retake the lead in the Republican White House race as Florida polls opened on Tuesday after days of brutal campaigning in which he pounded chief rival Newt Gingrich.
A big win anticipated by polls would propel Romney, a multimillionaire and former Massachusetts governor – back into the lead after a heavy loss to Gingrich in South Carolina that set off an avalanche of negative campaigning.
The two men have waged an increasingly bitter and personal battle over Florida, the largest state yet to vote in the race to select a candidate to face Democratic President Barack Obama in the November presidential election.
Romney in the days leading up to the vote has kept his boot on former House speaker Gingrich’s neck, belittling his rival’s attacks as “painfully revealing” but – in a sign of growing confidence – cancelling a final campaign event set for Tuesday.
“I tell you, with a turnout like this I’m beginning to believe that we might win tomorrow,” Romney told a large crowd in Dunedin on Monday, before training his sights on Gingrich, who has slipped in polls after winning South Carolina.
“I know the speaker is not real happy, speaker Gingrich, he’s not feeling very excited these days,” Romney said to cries of mock sympathy from the crowd.
“I know, it’s sad,” Romney said. “He’s been flailing around a bit trying to go after me for one thing or the other, you just watch it and you shake your head. It’s been kind of painfully revealing.”
Romney began to pull clear in the Sunshine State after a solid debate performance last Thursday, an advantage that was pressed home by a trove of blistering ads that painted Gingrich as unethical and unfit for office.
Polls opened at 7am (1200) GMT across the state, with results expected late on Tuesday. The winner will get all of Florida’s 50 delegates, the biggest prize yet in the campaign to get to 1,144.
Ahead of the vote, Romney led Gingrich by 13 points according to the Real Clear Politics polling average.
According to a Suffolk University/7NEWS poll released on Monday, the gap may be as much as 20 points, a crushing blow to Gingrich’s campaign.
But the former Georgia congressman has hit back, accusing Romney, 64 – a former venture capitalist and one of the wealthiest individuals ever to seek the presidency – of trying to spend his way to the White House.
“Money power cannot buy people power. People power depends on conservatism and we are going to take back our country,” Gingrich said in Tampa, joined by former candidate Herman Cain, a favourite of ultra-conservative Tea Party activists.
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has also weighed in for Gingrich, urging supporters to vote for the Georgia lawmaker as a way to keep the contest going.
Despite the lopsided polls, Gingrich said he expected a close race in Florida – which will be a key battleground in the November election – and has vowed to fight on in the state-by-state battle all the way to the convention in August.
Gingrich spokesman RC Hammond told AFP that there was no truth to suggestions that he would skip upcoming battles in Nevada and Michigan, where Romney is expected to do well.
“Our capacity to tell the truth about Romney’s record is limitless. We will challenge Mitt Romney and his lies in every state, in every contest,” he said.
Gingrich, 68, shocked the party establishment when he thumped Romney, in South Carolina earlier this month, but his support has been sinking fast in Florida and his opponent now appears to have all the momentum.
With seven states voting in the next four weeks, Romney’s vast war-chest and deep political organization could come to the fore as the candidates battle on multiple fronts.
Romney won five of those seven states in 2008, despite losing the eventual nomination to Arizona Senator John McCain.
The next vote will take place in Nevada on Saturday.
Former senator Rick Santorum – a religious conservative who won the first state of Iowa but whose campaign has been flagging in recent weeks – appeared to acknowledge his lack of traction in Florida and had begun campaigning in more promising states.
Santorum’s exit from Florida could help Gingrich play on the conservative base’s misgivings about Romney, who has been widely accused of flip-flopping on key social issues while he was governor of left-leaning Massachusetts.
A USA Today/Gallup poll on Monday however indicated that Gingrich’s nomination could be prescription for a Republican defeat in November.
In a matchup with Obama in the most closely contested states, Gingrich would lose 40 percent to 54 percent, according to the survey.
The same poll found that Obama and Romney were virtually tied in many of the key swing states that ultimately will decide the outcome of the November general election.