Former House speaker Newt Gingrich spent Friday struggling to fend off the perception that his presidential campaign has stalled after a flat debate performance on Thursday and fresh polling data showing his support slipping in Florida.

Gingrich began the day with new attacks against Mitt Romney, his top rival for the Republican nomination, launching an ad accusing Romney of distortions and deceptions “just to win an election.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Gingrich said he was stunned by Romney’s debate performance the previous evening, which he characterized as “the most blatantly dishonest performance by a presidential candidate I’ve ever seen.”

Gingrich’s campaign is at a crucial juncture in Florida, where he has seen his fortunes reversed just days before Tuesday’s primary. Gingrich arrived here with momentum after his huge win in South Carolina, but a Quinnipiac poll released Friday showed that Romney had regained a solid lead.

The Quinnipiac poll, conducted Jan. 24 to 26, shows Romney leading Gingrich 38 percent to 29 percent among likely GOP voters in Florida. A poll taken days earlier and released Wednesday showed Romney barely ahead of Gingrich, 36 percent to 34 percent.

Gingrich has struggled to raise money and build organizations in some of the critical primary states, and it is unclear how he will be able to continue if he loses in Florida.

Romney delivered his most aggressive debate performance of the campaign in Jacksonville on Thursday, rebuking Gingrich for criticizing his wealth. The former Massachusetts governor called it “repulsive” that Gingrich accused him of being “anti-
immigrant.” Romney also mocked Gingrich’s proposal to colonize the moon.

Romney declared the debate a victory on Friday. “How about the debate last night? Wasn’t that fun?” Romney said to a few hundred supporters inside Astrotech, a space operations company here.

Romney’s superior resources were on full display as his campaign sent a team of surrogates, including Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), to shadow Gingrich on Friday to offer real-time rebuttals to his remarks.

The Romney campaign matched Gingrich’s every move with one of its own and issued a long rebuttal to his new ad.

“It is laughable to see lectures on honesty coming from a paid influence peddler who suffered an unprecedented ethics reprimand, was forced to pay a $300,000 penalty, and resigned in disgrace at the hands of his own party,” wrote Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. “Speaker Gingrich is desperate to distract from his record of failed and unreliable leadership in an attempt to try and prop up his sinking campaign.”

As Romney’s campaign tried to seize the advantage, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin weighed in with a Facebook post decrying the “cannibals” of the Republican Party trying to discredit Gingrich.

“I am in favor of contested primaries and healthy, pointed debate,” Palin wrote. “They help focus candidates and the electorate. I have fought in tough and heated contested primaries myself. But what we have seen in Florida this week is beyond the pale.”

Palin has not endorsed anyone, but her husband, Todd, supports Gingrich.

Gingrich said he was less combative during the debate because he was shocked by Romney’s “totally dishonest” answers.

On several occasions during the debate, Gingrich leaned away from his lectern and looked at his feet. That was because he was so stunned by Romney’s statements, he said. He didn’t engage, he said, because “I wanted to fact-check. I wanted to make sure he was as totally dishonest as I thought he was.”

Gingrich charged that Romney was lying when he said he didn’t know about an ad his campaign is running that accuses Gingrich of calling Spanish a “ghetto” language. The former speaker charged that Romney also lied when he explained that the only reason he voted for former senator Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary was because there was not a Republican contest that year.

Gingrich’s new ad features a quote from former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who ran against Romney in 2008, attacking Romney: “If a man’s dishonest to get a job, he’ll be dishonest on the job.”

Huckabee disavowed the ad and asked Gingrich to take it down.

Also Friday, Romney and Gingrich reached out to Latino voters, saying they would champion freedom in Cuba and the rest of Latin America. Gingrich promised to allow Puerto Rico to vote on statehood, but Romney announced that Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño (R) had endorsed him.

Gingrich held a news conference with about a dozen Hispanic leaders. In a letter to Romney, the group wrote: “Without an open dialogue with us, you are unable to understand issues important to the Latino community.”

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released Friday showed Gingrich leading Romney nationally, 37 percent to 28 percent.

Underscoring the topsy-turvy nature of the race, however, the same poll showed Romney doing better than Gingrich against President Obama.

Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) trailed in the latest Quinnipiac poll, drawing 14 percent and 12 percent respectively.