Romney, Gingrich battle in Florida ahead of key primary

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 28, 2012 

ORLANDO, Fla. — As Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich dueled across Florida four days before the state's pivotal Republican primary, a new Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald poll showed Romney with a commanding double-digit lead.

"A lot of people may not be charged up about Romney, but they're coming to realize Gingrich is too big a risk to take in the general election," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, which conducted the poll.

Romney leads Gingrich, 42 to 31 percent. The survey was taken Tuesday through Thursday and completed before Thursday night's GOP debate in Jacksonville.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, spent Saturday elaborating on their chief message at that often raucous debate: That the other guy is unfit to be president.

Romney released a scathing new ad reminding voters how the House overwhelmingly reprimanded Gingrich for ethical lapses while he was speaker of the House of Representatives.

The ad features Tom Brokaw, then the anchorman of "NBC Nightly News," delivering the news 15 years ago about the extraordinary House rebuke.

NBC's legal department, though, asked the campaign on Saturday to remove NBC News content from the ad. And Brokaw, in a statement, said he was "extremely uncomfortable with the extended use of my personal image in this political ad. I do not want my role as a journalist compromised for political gain by any campaign."

The Romney campaign had no comment about the request.

In the ad, a note appears under Brokaw's image saying the spot is paid for by the campaign and approved by Romney.

Gingrich's campaign fought back Saturday, calling the ad "false," labeling Romney "dishonest," and vowing to "go all the way to the convention," regardless of the Florida result.

"I expect to win the nomination," Gingrich told reporters after a rally in Port St. Lucie. "Why don't you ask Gov. Romney what he is going to do if he loses, since he is behind in both national polls."

Gingrich won the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, and Gallup found he led Romney among Republicans by six percentage points in its Jan. 23-27 poll. He was up nine percentage points in an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll taken earlier in the week, before Thursday night's debate.

Gingrich said he was pleased to run on the "Reagan-Gingrich" record. Gingrich was an outspoken conservative during the Reagan administration and did not become speaker until 1995, six years after Reagan left office.

Romney backers have run ads questioning the two men's ties, noting Reagan mentioned Gingrich only once in his diaries.

Coker found that voters see Gingrich as a liability to other GOP candidates this fall.

"You can feel people are saying 'we can't risk it with Newt,'" he said.

The poll surveyed 500 likely Republican voters. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. Trailing were former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, with 14 percent, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has made a minimal effort here, at 6 percent.

The poll found that Romney's attacks on Gingrich's stint as a consultant for mortgage giant Freddie Mac have had an effect: 52 percent viewed Gingrich's work for the firm negatively, compared to 28 percent who gave it positive marks.

But Gingrich's efforts to paint Romney as an unscrupulous businessman haven't worked. Romney co-founded Bain Capital, a private equity investment firm. Three of four voters viewed Romney's Bain tenure positively, while 13 percent gave it negative reviews.

Romney does well in every part of the state. He has strong majorities in the crucial Hispanic community, where he has a 52 to 28 percent lead over Gingrich. Hispanics are expected to comprise about 13 percent of the GOP primary vote.

Romney spent his day in Florida's panhandle, the most conservative area of the state.

At a rally in Panama City Saturday, Romney spent most of his time rhetorically going after President Barack Obama. But he reserved some of his toughest talk for Gingrich. Romney pointed out that Gingrich likes to mention that he's an historian, "but that doesn't give him the right to re-write history."

Gingrich was "given the opportunity to lead our party. We elected him ... you're right, he failed," Romney said. "We took over the House, that was great news."

"What happened four years later?" Romney added. "Well, he was fined for ethics violations. He ultimately had to resign in disgrace. He can't rewrite history."

Gingrich stepped down as speaker in 1998 after Republicans did not fare as well as they hoped in the elections.

Later Saturday, Gingrich spoke to a sparse crowd at the Centro de la Familia Cristiana — Christian Family Center — in Orlando, where about 420 of the roughly 480 seats were empty.

Hosts asked people to move to the front rows and center seats to fill in the hall as Gingrich arrived, 55 minutes late. He dropped a planned town hall format after less than seven minutes of remarks to mingle and pose for pictures.

"My competitor on Tuesday has money power," Gingrich said of Romney, explaining why he was changing the format of the event.

"There's no question he can raise more money from Wall Street than I can. And he has big institutions pouring money in here. What I want to do is have people power," he said, urging people to "go out on Facebook and on YouTube and on Twitter and email, even by telephone and talk to people face to face."

He did find some support.

"If anybody knows how Congress works, knows how the system works, it's Newt," said James Baumann, an accountant from Groveland. "Romney reflects the political establishment. He is party line."

(Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald contributed.)

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