DUNEDIN, Fla. — The fate of Tuesday's Florida primary may come down to the preferences of voters whose preferred candidates are no longer in the running.
Last fall, state Republicans in a straw poll chose Georgia talk-show host Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry as their favorites for the GOP's presidential nomination. Both men are now out of the race and have endorsed Newt Gingrich, but the former speaker's fortunes could depend on how many of those former supporters follow their lead.
In a race that has been defined by front-runner Mitt Romney and conservative voters' search for an alternative, Tuesday's primary will be the latest test of whether either side can land a decisive blow in the increasingly testy nomination race, which is about to enter a phase of the race that appears to favor the former Massachusetts governor.
The GOP battle after Florida features contests that are more spread out, with just a single debate scheduled over the next three weeks. That poses a logistical challenge to candidates such as Mr. Gingrich, who has limited resources. It benefits Mr. Romney, who consistently has shown the ability to rake in campaign cash, which has allowed him to run several television and radio ads here in the state's costly media market.
At stake here in Florida are 50 delegates, which will be rewarded on a winner-take-all basis, and bragging rights in a race that has featured three different victors in three different races. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania won the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Romney won the New Hampshire primary and Mr. Gingrich won the South Carolina primary — days after Mr. Perry announced he was swinging his support behind him.
Polls released Monday suggest that the odds are against Mr. Gingrich pulling off a repeat performance in Florida, where more than 2 million voters are expected to turn out for the primary contest. The surveys showed Mr. Romney has opened a double-digit lead in a primary contest that just a week ago seemed to be up for grabs.
A Suffolk University/7NEWS (WSVN-Miami) poll of likely Republican primary voters in Florida released Monday showed Mr. Romney leading Mr. Gingrich 47 percent to 27 percent. Mr. Santorum, meanwhile, received 12 percent and Ron Paul finished fourth with 9 percent.
Five percent remained undecided.
"It is almost certain that Mitt Romney will top his 39 percent showing in New Hampshire," said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston. "This poll also tells us that Romney could reverse and exceed Newt Gingrich's percentage and margin in South Carolina — and do it in Gingrich's backyard."
With that as a backdrop, Mr. Gingrich barnstormed the state with Mr. Cain and Michael Reagan, former President Ronald Reagan's son, as he continued to brand Mr. Romney as a party insider who is not acceptable to conservatives and cannot match up to President Obama in a general election. Despite the negative polls, the former speaker's campaign emphasized that he plans to be in the race for the long haul.
"Money power can't buy people power," Mr. Gingrich told reporters. "People power depends on conservatism, and we are determined to take back our own country."
Mr. Gingrich also opened up a new line of attack against Mr. Romney, knocking him for vetoing funding for kosher food in nursing homes as governor of Massachusetts.
"Governor Romney imposed activities on the Catholic hospitals against their opposition [and] refused to allow them the right of conscience ... just as, by the way, he eliminated serving kosher food to elderly Jewish residents under Medicare," Mr. Gingrich said, alluding to a report over the weekend that said Mr. Romney opposed spending $600,000 in additional funds for poor Jewish nursing-home residents to get kosher meals.
The new polls appeared to give Mr. Romney a boost of confidence at a campaign stop here, where he told the hundreds of supporters that "with a turnout like this, I'm beginning to think we might win the thing."
Still, he didn't let up on what have been around-the-clock negative assaults against Mr. Gingrich ever since Mr. Gingrich stunned him with a victory in the Palmetto State primary. Mr. Romney poked fun at Mr. Gingrich's last two poorly reviewed debate performances and said that it is "sad" to watch the Georgia Republican search for ways to take down Mr. Romney.
"He has been flailing around a bit trying to go after me for one thing or the other, and you just watch and shake your head. It has kind of been painfully revealing to watch," he said.
Mr. Gingrich, he said, is crumbling under the weight of poor debate performances and the stories of the $1.6 million he made doing "consulting work" on behalf of Freddie Mac — the government-backed mortgage giant that many people say contributed to the housing crash that has decimated Florida's housing market.
"[He] made money from Freddie Mac, the very institution that helped stand behind the huge housing crises here in Florida," the Republican front-runner said, standing alongside Rep. Connie Mack and Pam Bondi, the state's attorney general. "If you are part of the housing crisis, you are probably not going to get elected president."
The Romney camp also issued a press release that said that there is "no denying" that Mr. Gingrich "advocated for the Obamacare mandate" to buy health insurance under the president's health care plan. They pointed reporters to an audio recording from a May 2009 conference call in which Mr. Gingrich speaks in favor of a federal health care mandate.
"We believe that there should be 'must carry' that is, everybody should either have health insurance, or if you're an absolute libertarian, we would allow you to post a bond, but we would not allow people to be free riders, failing to insure themselves and then showing up at the emergency room with no means of payment," Mr. Gingrich said.
Mr. Romney has faced fire for an individual-mandate provision to purchase health insurance included in the overhaul he signed as governor of Massachusetts.
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