ORLANDO, Fla._Mitt Romney is poised to win big in Tuesday's Florida Republican primary, a victory that would inch him an important step closer to the party's 2012 presidential nomination.
About 2 million people are expected to cast ballots in the biggest primary of the 2012 campaign so far. Most polls suggest a double-digit Romney victory over three rivals, and the former Massachusetts governor is likely to tout a strong showing as proof he has broad appeal to a diverse electorate.
But the race won't be over.
"A Romney victory will leave us where we thought it was several months ago, with Romney the likely nominee. But a lot of Republicans still are not reconciled to that idea," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, had hoped to capitalize on the momentum from his Jan. 21 South Carolina landslide over Romney. The two began the week in a virtual Florida tie in most polls.
But the well-funded Romney camp unleashed an ad barrage questioning the Gingrich's ethics and work for mortgage titan Freddie Mac. And Gingrich's performances in two Florida debates failed to provide the boost he got in South Carolina.
The average of surveys taken Jan. 24-29, compiled by RealClearPolitics, a nonpartisan web site, gives Romney a 12.5 percentage point edge. A Quinnipiac University survey conducted Friday through Sunday had Romney ahead among every subgroup of voters—conservatives, evangelicals, young, old, rich, poor and middle class.
Gingrich has vowed to stay in the race until the August convention.. Texas Rep. Ron Paul made only a token effort here, and is mounting a strong effort in Nevada, site of the next caucus Saturday.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum all but abandoned his Florida effort over the weekend, and plans to campaign next in states with upcoming contests. He's expected to be in Nevada Tuesday.
Romney is seen as having the organization and money to blanket each state with ads and workers. He raised $24 million in the fourth quarter of 2011, far more than any of his rivals. In Florida, Romney and a group backing him have spent $15.9 million on TV ads so far, while Gingrich and his supporters have spent about $4 million, according to data provided by NBC.
A prolonged race could get messy, and because of the Republicans' complex delegate selection rules, no one is likely to amass the 1,144 delegates needed for nomination until at least April.
"It could be a long haul," Sabato said. "You know the ending, but you don't know how beaten up Romney will be."
The winner of Tuesday's winner-take-all primary will get 50 delegates. Next stop for the campaigns is Nevada, and on Feb. 7, Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri vote. Maine voters are encouraged to caucus between Feb. 4 and 11.
By the end of next month, about 15 percent of delegates will have been chosen. The biggest one-day delegate prize comes March 6, when a dozen contests will be held. and more than 400 delegates will be chosen.
Romney and Gingrich resumed their efforts to beat up each other Monday as they criss-crossed the state.
Romney spoke at a Jacksonville forklift supply company and reminded the crowd that Gingrich was a paid consultant for mortgage giant Freddie Mac as the housing foreclosure crisis deepened.
“The idea that someone running for president at the time that was going onthat’s the real reason why Speaker Gingrich has had such a hard time,” Romney said. “If (people) want to see change in Washington, you can’t just select the same people to take different chairs.”Romney mocked a campaign promise Gingrich made on Florida’s Space Coast last week that, as president, he would return to manned space flight and establish a permanent U.S. colony on the moon.
“The idea of the moon as the 51st state is not what would come to my mind as a campaign basis for here in Florida,” Romney said.Gingrich's campaign insisted polls were trending his way. Tea Party Patriots, a conservative grassroots group, released a straw poll showing him the choice of 35 percent of the 600 participants. The group held a tele-conference with Gingrich, Romney and Santorum Sunday night. Santorum finished a close second, while Romney was a distant third.
Gingrich continued to pound away at Romney as a liberal beholden to Wall Street interests.
"He can bury me for a very short amount of time with four or five or six times as much money, most of it raised in Wall Street from the guys who got bailouts from the government" he told ABC's "Good Morning America."
"In the long run, the Republican party is not going to nominate the founder of Romneycare, a liberal Republican who is pro-abortion, pro-gun control and pro-tax decrease." Romney signed into law a Massachusetts health care plan considered the model for the 2010 federal law that Gingrich and Romney want repealed.
Gingrich, who traveled around the state by plane Monday, addressed a small but enthusiastic crowd at a Tampa Jet Center hangar. His campaign had curtained off two-thirds of the hangar, but the crowd didn’t fill the remaining third.
Preceding him were President Ronald Reagan's son Michael Reagan and Herman Cain, who suspended his 2012 GOP campaign after sexual harassment allegations.
Reagan touted Gingrich’s Reagan credentials. Romney’s campaign has pointed out that Reagan only mentioned Gingrich once in his diaries.“The people who are saying he wasn’t there, weren't there,” Michael Reagan said.
Gingrich singled out as an example of American ingenuity a guy in the audience who had made a poster with pictures of Obama and Romney with the caption: “Mitt no mistake: Obamacare is Romneycare.”
“I love people power, not money power and I think people power will win,” he said.