Mitt Romney stormed towards a likely Tuesday victory in Florida that would make him strong favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, but rival Newt Gingrich vowed a long-haul battle all the way to the August convention.
New polls on Sunday showed Romney opening up a decisive double-digit lead in Florida after his team went on the offensive, unleashing blistering campaign ads across the southeastern state that painted Gingrich as a failed House speaker whose ethics violations make him an untrustworthy candidate.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and millionaire venture capitalist who is considered the party establishment’s favoured candidate, was routing Gingrich by 15 points in Florida, 42% to 27%, according to an NBC/Marist poll.
A new Miami Herald poll showed Romney ahead by 11 points.
“What does Gingrich need to do? I would say Romney would need to implode,” Brad Coker, the pollster who conducted the Herald survey of 800 registered Florida voters, said in the newspaper.
Both surveys showed Christian conservative former senator Rick Santorum a distant third and congressman Ron Paul fourth.
Despite the polls, Gingrich said he expected a close race in Florida, which will be a key battleground in the November general election, pitting President Barack Obama, a Democrat, against the eventual Republican nominee.
After attending church services in this community north of Tampa, a fiery Gingrich insisted “the election will be substantially closer that the two polls” suggest.
With time running out for Gingrich to claw back some lost ground in Florida, he turned to the national nomination fight, insisting support for his campaign was building and that there was “no evidence Romney (is) coming close to getting a majority.”
“Romney has got a very big challenge in trying to get a majority at the convention” in August, he said.
“We will go all the way to the convention, and I believe the Republican Party will not nominate a pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase moderate from Massachusetts.”
Gingrich shocked the party when he thumped Romney in South Carolina earlier this month, and he enjoyed a bump in support before quickly sinking well below a resurgent Romney in Florida.
Gingrich’s campaign got a weekend boost when he received an endorsement from former rival Herman Cain, and tried to rally support by showcasing his conservative credentials, arguing that only a true conservative like himself has a chance to beat Obama.
“We nominated a moderate in ’96 and we lost,” he said Saturday in Orlando. “We nominated a moderate in 2008 and we lost. Only a solid conservative can debate Barack Obama and win.”
On Sunday Gingrich insisted the only reason he trailed the more moderate Romney was because of his main rival’s “relentlessly negative campaign” — and because Santorum, by staying in the race, was splitting the conservative vote.
“The fact is, when you combine the Santorum vote and the Gingrich vote… the conservative combined would clearly beat Romney,” he told ABC talkshow “This Week.”
Seizing on his rival’s precarious position, Romney’s ad uses television news footage from 1997 when Gingrich became the first speaker ever reprimanded by the House of Representatives.
Gingrich was accused of dozens of violations, including a claim of tax-exempt status for his college course.
The Gingrich campaign described the ad as “another big lie” from Romney’s team, and on Sunday Gingrich suggested such dishonesty made the former governor unfit to lead.
“You cannot be president of the United States if you cannot be honest and candid with the American people,” Gingrich told ABC.
Romney, who was due to give a stump speech in Naples on Sunday, has touted his business experience as being better suited to the tasks of creating jobs and bringing strong growth to a lackluster US economy — and has poured scorn on Gingrich’s background as a Washington lawmaker.
But Romney’s own business record has attracted challenges, and he has been on the defensive over his immense wealth and low tax rates, revealed in the recent release of his 2010 tax return. — AFP