And Gingrich, desperate to avoid a rout in the biggest primary contest so far, called the former Massachusetts governor both a liar and a liberal.
“I am, in fact, the heir to the Reagan movement, not some liberal from Massachusetts,” Gingrich told a crowd of thousands here at The Villages retirement community.
But it was Romney who claimed momentum as the two leading contenders set off on a final campaign sprint across Florida. An NBC News-Marist poll showed Romney leading Gingrich 42 percent to 27 percent, and a Miami Herald-Tampa Bay Times-El Nuevo Herald poll had Romney with a similar lead, 42 percent to 31 percent.
The poll by the Florida newspapers showed Romney — who lost the primary four years ago to the eventual nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) — ahead in every region of this vast state, though the race appears closest in conservative northern Florida. Romney was running particularly strong among women, where he enjoyed a 19-point lead; among men, the two were roughly tied.
Coming into this contest after Gingrich’s upset win in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, the race between the two had appeared to be a close one.
But Romney enjoys the benefits of superior financial and organizational resources in a state that has 10 media markets.
Romney and his allied “Super PAC” have been blanketing the airwaves with advertising that reminds Florida voters of Gingrich’s stormy tenure as House speaker and his subsequent consulting work for Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage giant that some conservatives blame for the financial collapse that hit this state’s real estate market particularly hard.
And in something of a role reversal, Gingrich also faltered in two debates over the past week, while Romney performed aggressively.
Romney said the former House speaker should “look in the mirror” to discover why he is losing ground among Republican voters.
“The people of Florida have watched the debates and listened to the speaker and listened to the other candidates and said, ‘You know what? Mitt Romney is the guy we’re going to support,’ ” Romney told a rally of more than 2,000 supporters in downtown Naples.
Romney chided that Gingrich has been “selling influence in Washington at a time when we needed people to stand up for the truth in Washington.”
Meanwhile, Gingrich again accused Romney of dishonesty. “I don’t know how you debate a person with civility if they’re prepared to say things that are just plain factually false,” Gingrich said during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.”