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Polls open in Florida for key Republican primary

(AP) / 31 January 2012

TAMPA, Florida — Polls opened early Tuesday in Florida, where Mitt Romney was pushing for a big win over Newt Gingrich in the race to pick a Republican challenger to President Barack Obama in November.

Polls show former Massachusetts governor Romney holding a double-digit lead in Florida, the fourth, largest and most diverse state so far to hold a nominating contest. The winner takes all 50 delegates at stake — the biggest prize to date in the state-by-state contests leading to the Republican National Convention in August that will select the nominee.

The candidates were quiet Tuesday morning, with Romney having no events until the evening.

Romney has been the front-runner for much of the race, but he suffered a stunning loss to former House of Representatives speaker Gingrich in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary and has been more aggressive in debates and speeches ever since.

“With a turnout like this, I’m beginning to feel we might win tomorrow,” the newly upbeat Romney told a crowd Monday.

Romney and his allies have poured more than $14 million into Florida television advertising primarily to attack Gingrich, who has struggled to compete with Romney’s fundraising ability, staffing and network of high-profile supporters. Gingrich and his allies spent roughly $3 million on Florida advertising. Gingrich also faltered in the Florida debates.

The last Florida polls close at 8 p.m. EST (0100 GMT). Republican officials in the state were anticipating a big turnout, more than 2 million voters, up from a record 1.9 million in the Republican primary in 2008.

A Romney win Tuesday is unlikely to end Gingrich’s candidacy in a Republican contest that has turned increasingly hostile. But Romney would have the clear momentum as the race enters a period of lower-profile contests, some in states friendly to the more moderate Romney.

Gingrich’s populist, sharp-tongued attacks on Obama and media “elites” have helped him emerge as Romney’s chief rival, but Romney has the advantage of more campaign money, a stronger national organization and the support of much of the Republican establishment. Romney supporters have tried to cast Gingrich as too erratic to be an effective nominee or president.

Romney is generally considered the Republicans’ strongest candidate to face Obama, whose re-election prospects have been hurt by the slow U.S. economic recovery. Florida has been especially hard hit, with nearly 10 percent unemployment and some of the nation’s highest foreclosure rates.

But Romney has had difficulty winning over many Republicans who question his conservative credentials given his shifting views on abortion, gay rights and gun control, as well as the similarities between a Massachusetts health insurance plan he backed as governor and Obama’s national plan, which is widely despised by Republicans.

Romney has renewed attacks on Gingrich as an untrustworthy Washington influence peddler, claiming that Gingrich’s ties to federally backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac, despised by conservatives, have hurt the former speaker in a state wracked by the foreclosure crisis.

Gingrich has acknowledged that his momentum has been slowed but promised to remain in the race through the Republican convention. He characterized Romney as an imposter.

“He can bury me for a very short amount of time with four or five or six times as much money,” Gingrich said in a television interview. “In the long run, the Republican Party is not going to nominate ... a liberal Republican.”

The other two candidates in the race will not be in Florida on Tuesday. Both former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas congressman Ron Paul have ceded Florida’s primary to Romney and Gingrich in favor of smaller, less-expensive contests. They will spend the day campaigning across Colorado and Nevada.

After Florida, the pace quickens with seven elections in February, which kicks off with Nevada’s caucuses Saturday. That will be followed by contests next week in Colorado, Minnesota and Maine as well as a non-binding primary in Missouri. A 17-day break will be capped by primaries in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28.

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