Romney Counts On Florida To Be Front-Runner Again

The Florida Republican primary is here, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney leads former House Speaker Newt Gingrich by a wide margin. When Romney came to Florida last week after a solid thumping in South Carolina, Gingrich seemed to be a serious threat to his candidacy. But Romney's lead in polls has been growing.

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The Florida race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich has been brutal and ugly at times, but it has left Romney a happy man. As Florida voters head to the polls today, Romney is confident he'll get a decisive win and reclaim his front-runner status.

We're about to hear from both campaigns, but let's start with NPR's Ari Shapiro, who's been traveling with Romney's campaign across Florida. He reports that on the last full day of campaigning, the former Massachusetts governor seemed downright jovial.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you...

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Mitt Romney was in a celebratory mood as his charter plane flew from Jacksonville to Tampa. With Florida election results still a day away, a reporter's 34th birthday seemed as good a reason to celebrate as any.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MITT ROMNEY: This is the fifth anniversary of her 29th birthday.

SHAPIRO: He seemed downright impish as he retreated to the front of the plane, only to return throwing snack bags of potato chips at the press corps.

ROMNEY: Oh, Cheetos. I like Cheetos.

SHAPIRO: Romney has reasons to be happy. When he came to Florida last week after a solid thumping in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich seemed to be a serious threat to his candidacy. Now, Romney's lead in polls has been growing and growing. He said to reporters on the plane: It feels good today.

ROMNEY: In South Carolina, the crowds were good, but you could sense that it wasn't going our way. Here, the crowds are good, and you can sense it's coming our way. It's getting better and better every day.

SHAPIRO: Some of that has to do with Romney's strategy of relentless attacks on Gingrich. He has pummeled the former House speaker in debates, rallies and TV ads. This ad has been in heavy rotation, using an excerpt of an old Tom Brokaw newscast to recount the time House Republicans turned on Gingrich.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

TOM BROKAW: (Speaking during news broadcast) They found him guilty of ethics violations. They charged him a very large financial penalty, and they raised - several of them raised serious questions about his future effectiveness.

ROMNEY: I'm Mitt Romney, and I approve this message.

SHAPIRO: NBC asked the campaign to stop using it, but the Romney folks refused.

A state like Florida is just too big to shake hands with everyone. Retail politics doesn't work here the way it does in Iowa and New Hampshire, so Romney's financial edge has given him a big advantage in the advertising race.

On the plane, Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom said all's fair. Gingrich won South Carolina in part by using attack ads against Romney.

ERIC FEHRNSTROM: Our reaction to that is not to complain or to cry about it. But we're not going to sit still, either. We're going to fight back, and that's what we did here in Florida.

SHAPIRO: Throughout all of this, the criticism of President Obama has never stopped. Fehrnstrom called that the elevator music in this campaign. But the Republican circular firing squad is the theme that has dominated Florida. Many of Romney's attacks on Gingrich have focused on the theme of housing. As Romney pointed out at a Jacksonville rally, one quarter of the foreclosed homes in America are here in Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN SPEECH)

ROMNEY: I think the real reason he hasn't done so well connecting with the people of Florida is that people actually saw him in those debates and listened to his background, his experience. And they learned, for instance, that he was paid $1.6 million to be a lobbyist for Freddie Mac. And they said, that's not what we want in the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS)

SHAPIRO: Someone in the crowd shouted: Send him to the moon - referring to Gingrich's proposal to establish a moon colony.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN SPEECH)

ROMNEY: The idea of the moon as the 51st state is not what would have come to my mind as a campaign basis for here in Florida.

SHAPIRO: Even hard-core conservatives who may not fit the typical profile of a Romney supporter seem to be coming around to him.

CHARLES OLIVER: We need somebody that can do away with ridiculous organizations like the EPA, and muzzle up the unions.

SHAPIRO: Charles Oliver, of Jacksonville, wore a jacket that says: National Rifle Association Life Member. He believes Romney's business experience is the key to fixing the economy.

OLIVER: I just look at my electric prices and my meat prices and the gas prices. I retired in 2006 and now, I'm working two part-time jobs.

SHAPIRO: Romney began the day singing, and he ended it with a song as well. Perhaps as a sign of his growing confidence, instead of reciting the lyrics to "America the Beautiful," as he typically does in a stump speech, he serenaded a crowd of seniors at The Villages.

ROMNEY: (Singing) ...above the fruited plain. America, America, God shed his grace on thee.

SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Tampa, Florida.

ROMNEY: (Singing) And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.

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