PORT ST. LUCIE, Florida — Front-runner Mitt Romney predicted victory in the pivotal Florida primary, but his chief rival Newt Gingrich vowed to stay in the race for the Republican presidential nomination until the party’s national convention this summer even if he loses Tuesday’s vote. Polls of Republican voters in Florida show Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, with a single-digit lead over Gingrich in what has essentially become a two-man race for the nomination. Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, surged ahead of Romney in the Florida polls just after his strong upset victory in last weekend’s South Carolina. But Romney, who has a huge organizational and financial edge over his rival, appears to have blunted Gingrich’s momentum with stronger-than-expected performances in two Florida debates this past week. Gingrich has staked his presidential bid on the idea that he is best positioned to defeat Obama because he can offer a distinctly conservative alternative to the president compared to Romney, whom he has labeled a “Massachusetts moderate” for past positions supporting gay and abortion rights. Romney and his backers — including many in the Republican Party’s establishment wing — are trying to stoke doubts about Gingrich’s electability by highlighting what they consider his liabilities — consulting contracts and ethics investigations among them. They’re suggesting that more baggage could emerge in the general election campaign. As the two rivals made their appeals to Hispanic, Jewish and social and fiscal conservative voters, veterans of the armed forces and others, all known indicators pointed to a good day for Romney in the primary. Romney and his allies held a 3-1 advantage in money spent on television advertising in the race’s final days. Gingrich pointed to national polls of Republican voters that showed him leading Romney. He pledged to remain in a race defined so far by unpredictability, raising the prospect of an extended struggle inside Republican ranks. Late Saturday, Gingrich got a boost with an endorsement from campaign dropout Herman Cain.
In a recent Washington Post-ABC News national poll, 53 percent gave Gingrich unfavorable marks and just 22 percent had a favorable opinion of the former House speaker. While Romney has typically polled better among independents, the poll conducted between Jan. 18 and 22 found virtually no difference: 51 percent of independents viewed him unfavorably, compared with 23 percent with favorable views. Campaigning like a front-runner, Romney made few references to Gingrich. Instead, he criticized Obama’s plans to cut the size of the armed forces. “He’s detached from reality,” Romney said. Romney said he wants to add 100,000 troops, not cut them. If Romney’s personal rhetoric was directed Obama’s way, the television commercials were trained on Gingrich. A new ad released as the weekend began is devoted to the day in 1997 when Gingrich received an ethics reprimand from the House while serving as speaker and was ordered to pay a US$300,000 fine. A second Romney ad said Gingrich had “cashed in” as a Washington insider while the housing crisis was hitting Florida particularly hard. Figures made available to The Associated Press showed Romney was spending US$2.8 million to air television commercials in the final week of the Florida campaign. In addition, a group supporting him, Restore Our Future, was spending US$4 million more, for a combined total of US$6.8 million. By contrast, Gingrich was spending about US$700,000, and Winning Our Future, a group backing him, an additional US$1.5 million. That was about one-third the amount for the pro-Romney tandem.