With only four days to go until the Florida primary, Romney seemed to have pulled his bid to be the party’s standard-bearer in the November elections off the ropes after a shock defeat in South Carolina and a slew of attacks over his enormous wealth and tax returns.
The Quinnipiac University survey showed the former Massachusetts governor at 38-29 percent over former House of Representatives speaker Gingrich in Florida, snatching back the lead after slipping badly over recent days.
The poll of likely Republican voters was taken before the candidates’ latest televised debate on Thursday, but it indicated the race may be swinging back in favor of businessman and former venture capitalist Romney, once seen as a shoo-in to face Democratic President Barack Obama in November.
“Newt Gingrich’s momentum from his South Carolina victory appears to have stalled and governor Mitt Romney seems to be pulling away in Florida,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Texas congressman Ron Paul, who has done virtually no campaigning in the Sunshine state, was on 14 percent, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum was in fourth place, with 12 percent, the survey said.
After a string of debates where he was criticized for lacking passion, Romney came out swinging late Thursday, rounding on Gingrich for alleging he was against immigrants and dodged his taxes.
“The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive,” Romney insisted, showing a flash of steel seldom seen in his campaign.
“It’s simply the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that’s characterized American politics too long,” he added to cheers from the Jacksonville audience.
Immigration policy is high on the agenda in Florida, a vote-rich battleground state where the large Hispanic bloc forms a key constituency.
Only six percent of those polled were undecided, but 32 percent said they might change their mind between now and Tuesday, when Florida votes — reflecting the volatility of a contest that has seen repeated twists and turns.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, brother of ex-president George W. Bush, warned after the debate that heavy rhetoric over immigration bore with it the risk that the state’s Hispanic community would be “turned off.”
“If we ignore the aspirational nature of the Hispanic communities across the country and say, ‘well, we can just keep doing it the old way’, and expect a different result, I think conservative candidates will lose,” Bush said.
“The states that are going to matter, where the growth of the voting population has been the greatest has been the Hispanic voters,” he added.
A loss in Florida would leave Gingrich’s bare-bones campaign in an uphill battle against Romney’s well-funded and well-organized machine in his bid to capture the party’s nomination as the race heads into other states.
The former house speaker, whose big win over Romney in South Carolina last weekend had catapulted him to the top of the Republican field, was often caught off guard in Thursday’s debate and his usual agility in mounting a pugnacious counter-attack seemed to desert him.
Such was the heat of early exchanges that Gingrich offered a truce: “How about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening, we’re going to talk about issues?”
But the offer was quickly knocked down when Gingrich refused to answer for earlier remarks about Romney’s Swiss and Cayman Island bank accounts.
Instead Romney, a multimillionaire, went on the attack.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to make here?” Romney asked rhetorically.
He also ripped Gingrich’s plans to establish a permanent base on the moon, largely with private funding.
“It may be a big idea, but it’s not a good idea,” Romney said.
Romney’s performance won plaudits from pundits, including former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
“Romney had a good night, stepping up his game going after Newt. Jab. Jab. Jab. Jab. Newt throws haymakers, and he didn’t get a chance to connect on any of them tonight,” Fleischer told CNN.
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