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As Fla. votes, Romney poised to regain frontrunner status

Emmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney supporters attend a campaign rally at Lake Sumter Landing in The Villages, Florida, Jan. 30, 2012.

 

Mitt Romney could reassert his status as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination with a win Tuesday night in Florida, where the former Massachusetts governor has waged a pitched battle against Newt Gingrich.

A number of polls indicate that Romney appears headed toward a victory over Gingrich in the Sunshine State. Most polls have Romney leading the former House speaker by a double-digit margin, signifying a remarkable change in momentum since Gingrich decisively won the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21.

NBC/Marist poll: Romney up 15 points over Gingrich in Fla.

But the campaign isn't yet on the verge of a quick or neat conclusion. Gingrich remains defiant in his bid to fight Romney, while the other remaining contenders -- Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum -- show no signs of ending their White House bids.

Nonetheless, the former governor has sought to rebuild his advantage in the race by essentially bludgeoning Gingrich, marking a departure in strategy for the Romney organization, which had been almost exclusively focused on targeting President Barack Obama and running a campaign with the tone of a presumptive nominee.

Of late, the Romney campaign is seeking to remind Republican voters of the heavy baggage Gingrich accumulated as speaker during the 1990s, a message easily pushed with a sizable war chest and the backing of Restore Our Future, a super PAC spending on the former Massachusetts governor's behalf.

New York One's Errol Louis, Politico's Maggie Haberman, and Republican strategist Mike DuHaime take a look at how politics might play out in the Florida primary. 

Together, this spending from the Romney campaign and the super PAC has heavily outpaced the Gingrich campaign and a pro-Gingrich super PAC. The difference in these campaign expenditures is especially pronounced in a state like Florida -- a large, diverse state with several large media markets, where TV advertising makes a difference. 

To that end, the bruising 10 days in the campaign appears to have worked; the NBC News-Marist poll conducted over the weekend found Romney at 42 percent in Florida, followed by Gingrich at 27 percent. This contrasts with polls released immediately following the South Carolina primary, which reflected a close race in the Sunshine State.

Ahead in new polls Romney aims for Newt knockout

A strong win in Florida would, if nothing else, make Romney the titular leader in the race for the nomination. The state's 50 delegates -- the most allotted by any contest so far in January -- are awarded entirely to the winner of the primary.

Romney has appeared confident on the campaign trail as of late, tweaking Gingrich gleefully, and even going so far as to sing lines from "America the Beautiful" on Monday.

"I know the speaker is not real happy," Romney said Monday in Dunedin. "He's not feeling really excited these days. I know, it's sad. He's been flailing around a bit, trying to go after me for one thing or another. You just watch and shake your head."

But victory would also give Romney a kind of imprimatur coming out of the gauntlet of early January primaries going into a relatively dead period for the campaign over the next month.

The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny and Politico's Jonathan Martin breakdown the Florida primary by county and look at past election results to see how this year's primary might play out.

Nevada and Maine host caucuses on Saturday; Romney won in the former (which has a sizable Mormon population) in 2008. Colorado and Minnesota each hold caucuses on Feb. 7, too. Because caucuses typically favor candidates with money and organization, Romney and Ron Paul, who's focused intently on those contests, are expected to perform best.

Those are the only nominating contests until late February, when Arizona and Michigan host its primaries. The Wolverine State is expected to strongly favor Romney -- it's where he was raised and his father served as governor.

The structure of the calendar means that Romney could work to secure a stranglehold on the race for the nomination or, if nothing else, dismiss competitors like Gingrich with the kind of relentless advertising that took its toll on the former speaker in the last week.

The prospect of defeat has done little, however, to deter Gingrich, who vowed this past weekend to take his campaign "all the way to the convention."

Gingrich: Race will go to 'June or July'

I’m not going to lose big here,” Gingrich told reporters Tuesday in Orlando, predicting his campaign would last "probably six months -- probably June or July -- unless Mitt Romney drops out earlier.”

Gingrich has rallied anti-establishment-minded conservatives to his candidacy, collecting endorsements from Herman Cain and former Sen. Fred Thompson, and even qualified support from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Gingrich has complained vocally in Florida about the type of attacks he's faced over the airwaves, similar to the frustration he spoke of in Iowa, when, during the a similar boomlet for his campaign, negative ads and attacks from Republican competitors deflated his support.

The attacks have prompted Gingrich to respond in kind, labeling Romney as a "Massachusetts liberal" and accusing him of supporting policies anathema to Republican voters.

"Why would anybody in the establishment think that a Massachusetts moderate, which is a liberal by Republican standards -- pro-abortion, pro gun control, pro tax increase, pro gay rights -- why would they think that he's going to be able to debate Barack Obama," Gingrich said Monday in Jacksonville.

But the former speaker's effort to rally conservatives behind his candidacy could continue to be complicated by persistance from Paul and Santorum. Paul is poised to pick off some delegates in several caucuses, and Santorum has already started campaigning in Minnesota, and will spend all of the Florida primary day in Colorado.