Florida’s Republican voters went to the polls yesterday in a high-stakes presidential primary election that could determine the direction of the race.
In what shapes up as a two-man contest, most opinion polls show former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney holding a double-digit lead over former US House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich.
Florida is the largest state to hold a presidential primary so far this year and a Romney victory would give him a big boost in the state-by-state battle to decide who will face US President Barack Obama in November.
Just 10 days ago, Gingrich was riding high after an upset win in South Carolina. Strong debate performances fueled a come-from--behind win in which Gingrich captured all key demographics.
Florida has been a different story, in part reflecting a torrent of attack ads targeting Gingrich, both from Romney’s campaign and from an independent “super” political action committee (Super PAC).
On the stump on Monday, Romney was breezy and Gingrich combative, reflecting the respective states of their campaigns. Romney canceled his scheduled morning event yesterday in Tampa; Gingrich was to crisscross the Orlando region, making four appearances in a final appeal for support.
“We were getting just walked on by Speaker Gingrich and really didn’t respond very well in South Carolina,” Romney said on NBC’s Today show on Monday. “So we decided, we’re going to respond.”
Romney’s advertising has focused on Gingrich’s work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac, and an ethics probe and his resignation as speaker. It has also mocked Gingrich’s attempt to ride the coattails of conservative hero and former US president Ronald Reagan.
“There’s nothing like US$17.5 million of false ads to make a big difference,” Gingrich told CNN on Monday. “I have never seen a candidate for president that -methodically dishonest.”
By the end of the day on Monday, the campaigns and allied Super PACs were due to report whose money they are spending, and how, in an increasingly expensive campaign.