Newt Gingrich tried to discount a likely defeat in Tuesday's Florida primary by declaring that Mitt Romney had yet to prove he could win a majority of the Republican vote and predicting that the nomination wouldn't be decided until the national convention in August.
Boosted by strong support from female voters, Romney lengthened his lead in Florida after one of the most bruising weeks of the campaign. He was ahead of Gingrich by double-digit margins in three new statewide opinion surveys released Sunday. But Gingrich said that Romney was a long way from wrapping up the nomination and pointed out that the former Massachusetts governor still lagged among the most conservative voters.
"We will go all the way to the convention," Gingrich told reporters after attending services at a Baptist mega-church in suburban Tampa. "When you take all the non-Romney votes, it's very likely that at the convention there will be a non-Romney majority and maybe a very substantial one. My job is to convert that into a Gingrich majority."
But Romney, sensing an opportunity to deal his main opponent a crushing blow, kept up the pressure. He accused Gingrich of "making excuses" for his sliding poll numbers after the former House speaker, eager for free TV time to counter Romney's nonstop ad attack, made the Sunday talk show rounds.
"He's on TV this morning, going from station to station, complaining about what he thinks were the reasons he's had difficulty here in Florida," Romney told a rally crowd in Naples. It was time for his rival "to look in the mirror," he said.
"Mr. Speaker, your trouble in Florida is not because the [debate] audience is too quiet or too loud, or because you have opponents that are tough," Romney said. "Your problem in Florida is that you worked for Freddie Mac at a time when Freddie Mac was not doing the right thing for the American people, and that you're selling influence in Washington at a time when we need people who will stand up for the truth."
He was referring to Gingrich's $1.6-million contract with the federal mortgage giant, a particular problem in a state hit harder than almost any other by home foreclosures.
Florida's winner-take-all delegate fight, the biggest yet in the 2012 campaign, is essentially a two-man contest, the latest round of polling confirmed.
Rick Santorum is running a distant third, despite having gained 5 percentage points in one survey after a strong performance in Thursday's debate. The former Pennsylvania senator canceled his Sunday campaign schedule after his 3-year-old daughter, Bella, was hospitalized with pneumonia. She suffers from a genetic disorder known as trisomy 18; most of its victims die before their first birthday. In a statement Sunday night, his campaign said he would be in Missouri and Minnesota on Monday.
Rep. Ron Paul had already abandoned Florida, husbanding resources for tests in other states. He spent part of the weekend in Maine, which he said could be his "breakthrough" state when the first round of caucuses begins next month. The Texas congressman told CNN that after more than two campaign days there, he "was very encouraged. The turnouts were fantastic. Usually overflow crowds, tremendous enthusiasm."
But in the Sunshine State, a withering and unrelenting Romney advertising assault against Gingrich — "carpet-bombing," the former House speaker described it Sunday — has turned the Republican race around. One week ago, Gingrich was riding a spurt of rising poll numbers after carrying South Carolina by a sizable margin. Now he faces what he acknowledged as an uphill battle in Florida — and uncertain prospects afterward. His best chance to bounce back won't come until the next round of Deep South primaries, still more than a month away.
The latest Florida polls found that the thrice-married Gingrich is suffering serious damage among female voters, perhaps as a consequence of recent remarks that his second wife made about his lengthy affair with a much younger woman who became his current wife.
Women favored Romney over Gingrich by 21 percentage points in a Marist poll for NBC News of likely Republican primary voters in Florida. A Mason-Dixon survey for the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald showed a 19-percentage-point edge for Romney among women. Romney led Gingrich by 15 percentage points in the Marist poll, completed Friday, and 11 percentage points in the Mason-Dixon poll, completed Thursday. A one-day Rasmussen poll on Saturday showed Romney with a 16-percentage-point edge.
The Marist survey found that Romney was leading Gingrich across a wide range of voters, including evangelical Christians and those who wanted to support the candidate they thought would be the strongest GOP contender against President Obama. Romney ran even with Gingrich among supporters of the tea party movement, a group the former speaker has courted heavily and whose votes could be influenced by Herman Cain's endorsement of Gingrich on Saturday night. The poll also showed that, even with Santorum out of the race, Romney would be leading Gingrich by a 16-percentage-point margin.
Florida is the first big-state test of the 2012 campaign. And Gingrich's comments notwithstanding, a decisive Romney victory would greatly complicate his rivals' efforts. Romney, by far the best-funded candidate in the field, has continued to raise large sums while Gingrich and Santorum have struggled to remain solvent. If he wins big in Florida, that would only widen the financial disparity.
Even worse, from the standpoint of Gingrich and Santorum, there would be few, if any, immediate opportunities to rebound. During February, only a handful of caucus and primary contests will be held, and Romney will be favored in most, if not all. At the same time, there will be only one nationally televised debate, the type of forum that Gingrich had successfully employed to promote his cash-short candidacy and that Santorum used to modest advantage last week.
A wild card in the race — and an increasingly crucial factor for Gingrich — will be the willingness of Las Vegas casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson to continue underwriting a pro-Gingrich committee that has been running anti-Romney ads in primary states. Adelson, with a personal fortune estimated at more than $20 billion, has already given, along with his wife, a total of $10 million to the pro-Gingrich group. By law, he can donate as much as he wants and, virtually single-handedly, prolong Gingrich's candidacy for weeks or even months.
Times staff writer Maria L. La Ganga in Las Vegas contributed to this report.