Romney Leads Gingrich Ahead Of Florida's Primary

Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spent the weekend chasing voters and trading barbs in Florida, which holds its primary Tuesday. New polls give Romney a commanding lead in the state, and he was greeted by enthusiastic supporters Sunday. But Gingrich too drew big crowds, and pledged that the race is far from over.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

When reading news reports about the Republican presidential campaign, it's revealing to stumble on a dispatch that's a week old. You may discover a report that is utterly out of date, almost as if it's about some other campaign; different poll numbers, different frontrunner, different tone.

MONTAGNE: Just over a week ago, news report showed Newt Gingrich ascendant after winning South Carolina. Now in Florida, the weight of Mitt Romney's money and organization is beginning to show. Romney holds a commanding lead.

INSKEEP: The candidates though keep fighting on before tomorrow's primary, racing from Naples to Tampa to Jacksonville to Hialeah.

Here's NPR's Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Mitt Romney has a plenty to feel good about these days. After losing big to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, he's built a large and growing lead in polls in Florida. And his campaign organization is firing on all cylinders.

This is from Sunday afternoon at a Cuban restaurant in Hialeah, near Miami, where Romney was courting the city's large contingent of Cuban American voters.

MITT ROMNEY: Thank you. It's so nice. Nice to see you. Hi...

GONYEA: And perhaps most significant, the candidate even seemed to be enjoying himself. At the restaurant he helped carve a roasted pig Though he stopped short of singing along with the trio playing an old standard a few feet away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUANTANAMERA")

GONYEA: Earlier in the day, at a rally in Naples, Romney kept up his attack on Gingrich. He taunted him for complaining about the rules for a debate last week which limited audience response and cheering. He then turned his attention to President Obama.

When I debate the president, I'm not going to worry about the audience. I'm going to make sure that we take down Barack Obama and take back the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GONYEA: In the crowd, Romney supporter Linda Dabica said she's confident Romney will win in Florida and beyond. But says it's been tough watching at times.

LINDA DABICA: It's awful. I mean it's up and down and up and down, and your stomach in knots. But Mitt will persevere. And he is so steady and reliable that he's going to make it all the way.

GONYEA: Newt Gingrich meanwhile is trailing in polls but has also been drawing big crowds in Florida. Yesterday, he was at the planned retirement community known as The Villages - more than 80,000 residents and they vote. Thousands of them turned out for a Sunday rally outdoors.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, it really is a great day in The Villages.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GONYEA: And right off the bat, Gingrich countered Romney's attack line with one of his own.

GINGRICH: I have an opponent who has money power. And we need people power to offset money power.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: In the crowd hanging on Gingrich's every word were husband and wife Bernie and Ginnie Gross. They're retirees who've moved here from Washington D.C. She worked in government. He was in food supply sales. They both like Mitt Romney, but say Gingrich is the guy to beat President Obama.

GINNIE GROSS: Newt is tough and rough and he'll take him down.

GONYEA: That's Mrs. Gross. Mr. Gross, meanwhile, dismisses those who say Gingrich is too conservative, that he won't appeal to independent voters in a contest with President Obama.

BERNIE GROSS: They said the same thing about Reagan. He was a movie star. And he kicked You-Know-Who's butt.

GONYEA: The You-Know-Who is President Jimmy Carter.

But some at this rally aren't ready to get behind Gingrich. Retiree Gordy Hubbard, from Huntsville Alabama, is among them. Romney comes to the Villages today. Hubbard says he'll be there.

GORDY HUBBARD: I'll listen to Mitt. And I'll just have to think about it. I really don't know. It's a toss up right now.

GONYEA: The other two candidates still in the GOP race were not in Florida over the weekend. Both Congressman Ron Paul and former Senator Rick Santorum are way behind in statewide polls. Paul has been focusing on caucus states coming up on the calendar. Santorum had planned on being in Florida yesterday, but the youngest of his seven children, three-year-old Bella, was hospitalized with pneumonia. She is the disabled daughter he often talks about in speeches.

Santorum's oldest daughter, Elizabeth, filled in for him Sarasota yesterday.

ELIZABETH SANTORUM: My dad wishes he could be here with all of you today. I know he's missing on talking to you. But thank you all for coming out. It's just so encouraging to see all of you here.

GONYEA: In a conference call last night with supporters, Santorum said Bella had made, quote, "a miraculous turnaround." He won't campaign today in Florida but he will travel to Missouri and Minnesota for events. Romney and Gingrich meanwhile will be all over the Sunshine State on the final day before the primary.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Jacksonville.

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