Florida primary's big prize likely to go to Romney
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, sings "America the Beautiful" as he campaigns at Lake Sumter Landing, The Villages, Fla., Monday, Jan. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) By Charles Dharapak
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- Mitt Romney oozed confidence and a defiant Newt Gingrich seemed to acknowledge his momentum had been checked, at least for now, as Florida Republicans voted Tuesday to decide who gets the state's 50 delegates, the biggest prize yet in the Republican presidential nomination contest.
Romney is heavily favored in the winner-take-all primary, the final and possibly pivotal contest in a month of high-stakes elections in which the former Massachusetts governor has claimed one win and two second-place finishes so far. On Monday, he campaigned so optimistically that he even broke into song.
Without predicting a winner or endorsing a candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told CNN: "The winner of Florida is in all likelihood going to be the nominee of our party."
In Palm Beach, Julian Stoopler, a 68-year-old investment adviser, said he's always liked Gingrich but ultimately decided to give his vote to former business leader Romney. "The condition of the country has deteriorated so badly that we need a CEO to turn it around," Stoopler said.
In Miami's Little Havana, car salesman Osvaldo Mitat, 69, favored Gingrich. He's impressed by the former House speaker's "commitment to the Cuban community," Mitat said, and Gingrich's past personal life doesn't bother him -- Mitat has been divorced four times himself.
"Romney also has a past," he said. "Everyone has a past."
For a time, Gingrich reset the GOP race with an overwhelming victory in South Carolina. But in the 10 days since, the contest has turned increasingly hostile and polls have swung in Romney's direction.
"With a turnout like this, I'm beginning to feel we might win tomorrow," an upbeat Romney told a crowd of several hundred at a stop in Dunedin on Monday.
Gingrich acknowledged his momentum had slowed but promised not to back down.
"He can bury me for a very short amount of time with four or five or six times as much money," Gingrich said in a television interview. "In the long run, the Republican Party is not going to nominate ... a liberal Republican."
Romney's campaign canceled a Tuesday morning rally, but scheduled a night celebration at the Tampa Convention Center. Gingrich will make a series of public appearances -- including visits to two polling stations and a stop at the Polk County headquarters -- before gathering with supporters for a primary night party in Orlando. The last polls close at 8 p.m.
At his final event on primary eve, at The Villages in central Florida, Romney broke into song, leading the crowd in a reverent rendition of "America the Beautiful," instead of just reciting the lyrics as he typically does.
The path to the Republican nomination -- and the right to face President Barack Obama this fall -- shifts to a series of lower-profile contests in February.
The other two candidates in the race will not be in Florida on Tuesday. Both Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have ceded Florida's primary to Romney and Gingrich in favor of smaller, less expensive contests. They will spend the day campaigning across Colorado and Nevada.
Romney and his allies have poured more than $14 million into Florida television advertising primarily to attack Gingrich, who has struggled to compete with Romney's fundraising ability, staffing and network of high-profile supporters. Gingrich and his allies spent roughly $3 million on Florida advertising.
"We are pitting people power versus money power," Gingrich said Monday as he tried to rally his shrinking base of support.
GOP officials in Florida were anticipating a big turnout, more than 2 million voters, up from a record 1.9 million in the Republican primary in 2008. More than 605,000 Floridians had already voted as of Monday, either by visiting early voting stations or by mailing in absentee ballots, ahead of the total combined early vote in the GOP primary four years ago.