Mitt Romney prepared for victory in the Republican presidential primary in Florida today, as Newt Gingrich vowed to wage a prolonged fight for the nomination.
With 28 percent of precincts counted after polls closed in the Eastern time zone of Florida, Romney held 49 percent of the vote, Gingrich 30 percent, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania 13 percent and U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas 7 percent. Polls in the western Panhandle were set to close at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
“You can sense that it’s coming our way,” Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, told reporters on his campaign plane yesterday. “It’s getting better and better every day.”
With Romney surging in Florida, Gingrich told reporters in Orlando today he will continue campaigning until June or July, “unless Romney drops out sooner.”
Gingrich has started to lay out a strategy for the seven contests next month as aides pointed to national surveys showing their candidate in the lead as proof that he could still win the nomination.
“We are going to go all the way to the convention,” Gingrich told a crowd of about 200 at the Renaissance Airport Hotel in Orlando yesterday. “We are going to win in Tampa. And we are going to be the nominee with your help.”
Gingrich’s campaign raised $5 million this month and $10 million in the last three months of 2011, spokesman R.C. Hammond said in a posting on Twitter today. Gingrich, in a Jan. 28 interview with Bloomberg News, said he was down to about $600,000 after winning South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary and was spending money as fast as he could collect it.
At a rally in Dunedin, Florida, yesterday, Romney ridiculed Gingrich and said he was making excuses for what is likely to be a poor showing tonight.
“He’s been flailing around trying to whack me for one thing or another,” Romney, 64, told several hundred voters gathered in the town square. “You just watch it and you shake your head.”
Gingrich, 68, a former U.S. House speaker, arrived in Florida a week ago with the momentum of a 12-percentage-point upset win in South Carolina.
Since then, Romney and his allies have pounded Gingrich with negative television ads and on the campaign trail. They spent more than $12 million on ads in Florida, compared with $1.8 million in advertising time bought by Gingrich and his backers through Jan. 29, according to data collected by New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising. Ninety-two percent of all TV ads aired in Florida over the last week were negative, according to the company.
“If you’re attacked, I’m not going to sit back,” Romney told reporters in Tampa today. “I’m going to fight back, fight back hard.”
Romney also delivered two strong debate performances last week, as Gingrich struggled in a forum that has previously played to his strengths.
Now, polling shows Romney with a commanding lead in the state. The Quinnipiac University poll released yesterday has Romney leading Gingrich 43 percent to 29 percent. The Jan. 27-29 telephone poll of 539 likely Republican primary voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
Republican officials in Florida predicted more than 1.5 million votes by the time polls close tonight, state Republican Party spokesman Brian Hughes said.
More than 632,500 Florida Republicans have already cast ballots through the mail or at early voting sites, more than the final turnout in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina and what the officials say is a record for their state’s primary.
Still, the nomination won’t be won or lost in Florida alone. The largest state to hold a primary so far, Florida awards 50 convention delegates -- a fraction of the 1,114 needed to secure the nomination. The Republican convention in Tampa begins on Aug. 27.
“Regardless of the message the Romney campaign wants to push and the media wants to deliver, this race is just getting started,” Gingrich’s national political director, Martin Baker, said in a memo to reporters yesterday outlining the candidate’s plans.
Baker wrote that Gingrich will have an advantage because most of the contests over the next two months will award delegates on a proportional basis.
“The shortage of ‘winner-take-all’ contests ensures that no single race will either clinch the nomination for a candidate or knock a candidate out of the race,” he wrote.
Gingrich’s campaign identified Minnesota and Colorado on Feb. 7 and Arizona on Feb. 28 as their best chances for victories heading into Super Tuesday on March 6, when 10 states have primary contests.
Republican voters in the two Western states have an independent streak that aligns with Gingrich’s anti-establishment message, said Hammond. The Gingrich campaign will be funded in those states by a base of online donors who give $250 or less, he said.
“We have that pipeline in place,” Hammond said. “It’s all about TV at this point.”
Santorum, after a weekend break from campaigning to care for his sick daughter, also said he is staying in the race, though he has failed to gain traction in Florida polls. Yesterday, he predicted a political revival for his campaign at an event at a suburban St. Louis community college, becoming the first candidate to campaign in Missouri before its Feb. 7 contest.
Today, Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn said he will resign the position effective Feb. 10. The party held its caucuses Jan. 3 and initially declared Romney the winner by eight votes. On Jan. 19, the party said its final certified totals showed Santorum 34 votes ahead of Romney and that certified results would be unavailable for eight precincts.
Paul, who has invested little in Florida, has focused more on gathering delegates from caucus states where it is cheaper to campaign. He plans to spend today campaigning in Colorado and Nevada.
After holding a party tonight in Tampa, Romney plans to campaign in Minnesota tomorrow before arriving that evening in Nevada, where the campaign is already airing ads before the Feb. 4 caucuses.
“This could be a long process of going state to state getting support in each state,” Romney told reporters today. “I’m not going to judge when that process will be over. It will be over when those delegates are collected.”
Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney adviser, said the campaign considers Paul strong in Nevada, which has an active fiscally conservative Tea Party community, and Santorum to have an advantage in Minnesota. where there is a strong community of anti-abortion activists.
“It’s not a two-person contest between Mitt and Newt Gingrich,” he said. “We know we have to fight for every vote.”
The split between the two Republican front-runners illustrates the divide within the party between many elected officials who are backing Romney, and the Tea Party and social conservatives who Gingrich is seeking to rally.
“This is a fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” said Bill McCollum, a former congressman from Orlando and state attorney general who is chairman of Gingrich’s Florida bid.
In Florida, Romney has showcased his support from some of the biggest names in the Republican Party, highlighting a friendly statement from 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole and campaigning alongside 2008 nominee Senator John McCain of Arizona.
Wall Street Bankers
Gingrich has cast his candidacy in populist terms, painting Romney as the choice of Washington politicians and Wall Street bankers who benefited from government bailouts.
“We can’t beat all the money power of Goldman Sachs, all the Romney people; we can’t beat the Romney money ourselves,” Gingrich told voters in Pensacola, Florida. “We can’t beat the dishonesty of his campaign by ourselves. We need witnesses who are prepared to go out and prepared to stand for conservatism.”
Romney accused Gingrich of trying to justify what is likely to be a poor showing in Florida, saying his promise of a protracted campaign is a sign the former speaker’s chances are fading.
“That’s usually an indication that you think you are going to lose when you say you’re going to go on whatever happens,” Romney said.
Continuing his effort to tie Gingrich to the housing crisis, Romney attributed the decline in his support to consulting services the former speaker provided to Freddie Mac after leaving office. The government-backed home mortgage company is unpopular in Florida, where 23 percent of all mortgaged homes are delinquent or in foreclosure, the most in the nation, according to Jacksonville, Florida-based Lender Processing Services.