, TAMPA, Jan 31 – Despite a comfortable lead in the polls, Mitt Romney kept his boot on the neck of rival Newt Gingrich on Monday, as both men made final pitches to Florida voters on the eve of a key Republican presidential primary.
Knowing that victory on Tuesday would cement his status as presumptive nominee and help vanquish a heavy loss in South Carolina, Romney belittled his rival’s attacks as “painfully revealing,” capping a strikingly bitter and personal contest between the two men.
“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, before training his sights on the former speaker of the House of Representatives.
“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 had 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 not fit for office.
On the eve of the vote, the former Massachusetts governor and millionaire venture capitalist led Gingrich by 13 points according to the Real Clear Politics polling average.
The winner-take-all state that offers 50 delegates is the biggest trawl in the campaign to get to 1,144.
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 congressman from Georgia hit back, accusing Romney of trying to buy the election, as he promised a fight all the way to the August convention.
“Money power cannot buy people power, people power depends on conservatism and we are going to take back our country,” he said in Tampa, joined by former candidate Herman Cain, a favourite of the party’s Tea Party activists.
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, a favourite of the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party, has also weighed in Gingrich’s favour, telling supporters to “Vote for Newt” in Florida.
Despite the polls, Gingrich said he expected a close race in Florida, which will be a key battleground in the November election, pitting President Barack Obama, a Democrat, against the eventual Republican nominee.
Gingrich’s campaign has been quick to scotch rumours that a defeat would spell the end of his race.
Spokesman RC Hammond told AFP that there were no truth to suggestions that Gingrich 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 offering the prospect of a bitter fight ahead.
Gingrich, 68, shocked the party establishment when he thumped Romney, 64, in South Carolina earlier this month, but his support has been sinking fast in Florida and his opponent now appears to be the one with all the momentum.
With seven states voting in the next four weeks, Romney’s vast cash war-chest and deep political organization could come to the fore as political battles are fought on multiple fronts.
Even though he came in third in the 2008, Romney then won five of those seven states.
The next vote will take place in Nevada on Saturday.
A crucial role is being played by conservative former senator Rick Santorum, who won the first state of Iowa but whose campaign has been flagging since.
Santorum appeared to concede defeat in Florida’s primary on Sunday, announcing that he would begin campaigning in other states.
That has given Gingrich an opportunity to showcase his conservative credentials, arguing that only a true conservative like himself has a chance of beating Obama.
Romney, who has switched positions on abortion and now opposes it, has had to fend off lingering doubts over his conservative credentials dating back to his time as governor.
But a new USA Today/Gallup poll made public Monday 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.
The 12 closely contested battleground states in the poll were Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.