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No 'cruise control' for Romney campaign after Florida

No 'cruise control' for Romney campaign after Florida
Mitt Romney talks to reporters on his plane at the Jacksonville International airport before flying to St. Petersburg, Fla.. on Monday. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Confident in his lead over

Newt Gingrich

in Florida,

Mitt Romney

was clearly looking to the contests ahead on Monday -- telling reporters that he could feel the campaign momentum moving his way in Florida and that he would soon shift his attention toward winning over

tea party

voters in Nevada.

During a brief chat with reporters on a charter flight from

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Jacksonville
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to Fort Myers on Monday, Romney said unlike South Carolina, where he lost to Gingrich by 12 points, "you can sense it's coming our way."

The former Massachusetts governor shrugged off Gingrich's vow to continue his campaign all the way to the Republican convention in August: "That's usually an indication that you think you're going to lose," the candidate said. "I'm hopeful to get the delegates I need and be at the convention with the number that's needed to be the nominee. But, you know, everybody has the right to stay as long as they think they can get the delegates that they need."

He said the primary contests ahead in February "present challenges and opportunities for the other candidates, and for me as well": "Minnesota is a state that's hard to predict. ... Nevada has a strong tea party component that I'd like to connect with, and get support from tea partyers," he said. "I don't think you can ever count on a state being in your corner."

Polls suggest that Romney could trounce Gingrich here Tuesday, but Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom said he wouldn't hazard a guess on how quickly the campaign believes the former Massachusetts governor could win the delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination.

That is, in part, because the Romney team expects Texas

Rep. Ron Paul

to be a strong adversary in upcoming caucus states like Nevada, where his backers have been organizing for months, and that they expect former Pennsylvania Sen.

Rick Santorum

to do well in Minnesota, where Romney plans to stop Wednesday on his way to Nevada.

"You're not going to see Mitt Romney go into cruise control after Florida," Fehrnstrom said.

Even with their promising poll numbers, the campaign has not let up in attacks on Gingrich this week. Fehrnstrom compared Gingrich to "a volcano -- you don't know what he's going to be spewing next."

"It's important to push back against the misinformation," he said.

Romney told

NBC

's

"Today"

show Monday morning that Gingrich's South Carolina victory was due in part to his campaign's inadequate response to the former House speaker's criticisms.

In Florida and in Nevada, the campaign plans to continue its efforts to remind voters that Gingrich worked as an adviser to

Freddie Mac

-- a line of attack that they believe has been particularly effective with Florida voters.

In Florida, they have held more policy focused events like roundtables with business owners and voters affected by the housing crisis -- a strategy they plan to continue in Nevada. And most of all -- in an effort to convey strength and electability -- Romney's campaign is trying to telegraph to voters that his campaign is ready to handle a contest with President Obama.

"We came out of South Carolina having taken a pretty good licking from Newt Gingrich's [political action] committee, from Newt's 'super PAC,' from some of the other candidates – they were all pouring negative on Mitt. Our reaction to that is not to complain or to cry about it, but we're not going to sit still either. We're going to fight back and that's what we did here in Florida."

maeve.reston@latimes.comtwitter.com/MaeveReston

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