ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida may be Newt Gingrich's Waterloo.
After storming into the state with a head of steam from a surprising win last Saturday in South Carolina, Gingrich's support has waned and polls now suggest that he could lose Florida's primary when voting ends Tuesday, perhaps by a wide margin.
He's run into a newly energized, hard-hitting opponent in Mitt Romney, a TV-dominated mega-state where he can't afford to play and a diverse state in which transplanted Northeasterners and Midwesterners aren't as welcoming to his message.
At the same time, the party establishment is rallying to stop him. And he heads from Florida into a weeks-long stretch with no TV debates, once the lifeblood of his cash-poor campaign.
A solid loss would kill the boomlet he enjoyed in South Carolina and severely limit his ability to challenge Romney. He could come back again — he has twice already in this long campaign — but the cash and the calendar work against him more with each passing week. Instead, they work for Romney.
"Gingrich's momentum from his South Carolina victory appears to have stalled and ... Romney seems to be pulling away in Florida," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Polls punctuated the turnaround.
A Quinnipiac poll Friday found Romney with the support of 38 percent of likely Florida primary voters, Gingrich with 29 percent, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas with 14 percent and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania with 12 percent.
With 3 in 10 likely voters saying they still might change their minds, it's possible that Gingrich could gain again. However, Brown added, "With the debates now over, Gingrich will need some other way to reverse the tide that appears to be going against him."
Other polls show a similar lead for Romney: The Rasmussen poll reported a 17-point shift, from a Gingrich lead of 9 points Monday to a Romney lead of 8 points Thursday.
Several factors combined in Florida against Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives.
First, Romney fought back hard.
The former governor of Massachusetts came out swinging against Gingrich in a Florida debate Monday, then did it again Thursday. He slammed Gingrich for airing an ad that calls Romney anti-immigrant, ripped anew Gingrich's paid work for the troubled housing agency Freddie Mac and ridiculed his proposal to colonize the moon.
Second, Romney could afford to advertise heavily, the only candidate who had the means to do that in a state with 10 media markets.
More important, the debates and TV ads found an audience in Florida different from that in South Carolina.
"There are a lot of transplants from the Midwest or Northeast who can relate to Romney's style of politics. They're country club Republicans," said Brad Coker, an independent pollster based in Florida. "The evangelical vote is much more watered down."
Gingrich faced another head wind as his South Carolina win turned him from a second-tier candidate into a possible nominee: A new wave of voices spoke up against him.
"It is now time to take a stand before it is too late," said former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the party's presidential nominee in 1996 and vice presidential nominee in 1976. "If Gingrich is the nominee it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state and federal offices."
Several conservative pundits also turned up the heat.
Conservative columnist Ann Coulter accused Gingrich of "hotheaded arrogance." George Will questioned giving him control of nuclear weapons. Matt Drudge, whose Drudge Report is the mega-must-read website for conservatives, has been blaring anti-Gingrich headlines. One said Thursday: "INSIDER: GINGRICH REPEATEDLY INSULTED REAGAN."
After Florida, the campaign heads into a stretch of caucuses — Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota and Maine _in which organization is key, there aren't any televised debates and Gingrich may not be able to compete as well.
He won't feel the warmth of TV lights on a debate stage until Feb. 22 in Arizona.
Said Coker: "He probably won't have a good month."
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