DUNEDIN, Fla. - A confident Mitt Romney switched from scorn to pity yesterday, telling voters it was pathetic to see Newt Gingrich on the verge of a humiliating loss in today’s Florida primary. Voters began heading to the polls at 7 a.m. today.
“It’s sad,’’ Romney told a crowd of hundreds gathered under a relentless sun in a park in this coastal city 25 miles west of Tampa. “He’s been flailing around a bit trying to go after me for one thing or the other. You just watch it and you shake your head. It’s been kind of painfully revealing to watch.’’
Vastly outspent and buried under an avalanche of attack ads, Gingrich denounced Romney as a truth-twisting liberal as he sought to rally conservatives and Tea Party supporters in his final appeal to Florida voters.
“With your help, we’re going to win a great victory tomorrow,’’ Gingrich told a small but boisterous crowd in a Tampa airport hangar. “And when we win a great victory tomorrow, we’ll have sent a signal to [the liberal billionaire] George Soros, to Goldman Sachs, and to the entire New York and Washington establishment: Money power can’t buy people power.’’
But Gingrich’s prospects do not look bright.
A Quinnipiac University poll released yesterday showed Romney with a 14-point lead in Florida, up from 9 points three days earlier. Romney had the support of 43 percent of the state’s likely Republican voters, to Gingrich’s 29 percent, while Ron Paul and Rick Santorum had 11 percent each, the poll found. Only 7 percent were undecided, although 24 percent said they could change their minds.
The survey also indicated that Romney has wooed a broad swath of the Republican electorate, including groups that had been cool to him. According to the poll, he now leads Gingrich among conservatives, white evangelical Christians, and Tea Party movement members.
A win today would give Romney a major boost as the race scatters to the seven states that vote over the next month. Florida’s haul - 50 winner-take-all delegates - is more than any candidate has accumulated in the first three contests.
Even as he courted Floridians, Romney told reporters he plans to campaign tomorrow in Minnesota, which votes Feb. 7, and Nevada, which votes Saturday and which Romney won in 2008.
The former Massachusetts governor was ebullient as he raced from rally to rally yesterday, hopping from a heavy equipment dealership in Jacksonville, then to Dunedin, and finally to a packed rally at the Villages, a retirement community near Orlando, where he ended the day.
At the final event, even Romney’s 5-year-old grandson, Parker, joined in the enthusiasm. “It looks like Papa’s going to win,’’ he exclaimed to the crowd.
Romney has blitzed the state with attack ads, which is one of the major reasons for his strong standing. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, which is affiliated with Wesleyan University in Connecticut, his campaign and his allies have aired almost 13,000 ads on broadcast television in Florida as of last Wednesday, while Gingrich and his allies had broadcast only about 200. That barrage has only intensified in the past few days.
Yesterday, Gingrich introduced a new line of criticism in a series of attacks on Romney: accusing him of trampling “religious liberty’’ at Catholic hospitals and Jewish nursing homes when he was governor.
He did not explain the Catholic hospital reference. In 2005, however, Romney confirmed that all hospitals in the state were required to provide Plan B, the emergency contraception pill, under Medicaid.
“You want a war on the Catholic Church by Obama? Guess what: Romney refused to allow Catholic hospitals to have conscience in their dealing with certain circumstances,’’ Gingrich said.
Seeking to appeal to Florida’s large population of Jewish seniors, Gingrich also seized on a 2003 veto in which Romney slashed $600,000 in state funding for kosher meals for nursing homes. Gingrich said the veto “cut off kosher meals for Jewish senior citizens on Medicaid for $5 a day.’’
To combat Gingrich’s abortion accusations, Romney yesterday released an open letter to Florida social conservatives that was signed by prominent opponents of abortion rights from Massachusetts, including former Boston mayor Raymond L. Flynn and Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon, both of whom served as ambassadors to the Vatican.
“For four years, Governor Romney was right there beside us, providing leadership on key issues - whether it was politically expedient to do so or not,’’ the letter states. “It is clear that Governor Romney has learned much since 1994 - to the benefit of our movement and our Commonwealth.’’
But Gingrich argued that Romney was too far to the left for the grass roots of the Republican Party. All week, he has been trying to mobilize grass-roots conservatives, evangelicals, and Tea Party activists against Romney, who has the backing of establishment figures such as Bob Dole and John McCain, the 1996 and 2008 Republican nominees.
“We nominated a moderate in 1996, and he lost; we nominated a moderate in 2008 and he lost,’’ Gingrich said, blasting both Dole and McCain. “Mitt Romney is more liberal than either of those candidates.’’
Last night, Gingrich’s campaign was downplaying the importance of doing well in Florida.
“It’s like focusing on the third game of the baseball season, and trying to figure out if the Red Sox are going to finish in the wild card or win the AL East,’’ said spokesman R.C. Hammond, who is from New Hampshire. “There’s no such thing as quit in this campaign.’’
Gingrich will depart for Nevada soon after addressing his supporters in Orlando tonight, Hammond said.
Herman Cain, the onetime candidate and Tea Party favorite, who campaigned with Gingrich yesterday, sought to bolster the spirits of the former speaker’s supporters, despite the disappointing poll numbers.
“Stay inspired,’’ he said. “They want you to believe the game is over. The game just started. The game is not over.’’
Brushing aside questions about a potential loss in Florida, Gingrich vowed to stay in the race until the party convention in August. That declaration drew a cutting response from Romney.
“That’s usually an indication that you think you’re going to lose,’’ he told reporters aboard a charter flight from Jacksonville to Clearwater. “When you say I’m going to go on no matter what happens, that’s usually not a good sign.’’