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Romney makes a confident lap across Florida

From the beginning of the 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney has strained to give the impression that despite his money, muscle and organizational might, he is running his campaign as if he is 10 points down with hours to go.

But that was a tall order for the candidate Monday, as new polls showed him rocketing to a 20-point lead over rival Newt Gingrich here hours before voting begins. Loose and relaxed as he made his 14-hour sprint from a Jacksonville forklift company to a mobbed rally before thousands of retirees at The Villages, Romney no longer seemed concerned about hiding his confidence.

Instead of keeping to himself at the front of his charter plane, where he most often quietly reads on his iPad, he made a rare visit to the press corps at the back of the plane, playfully flinging bags of potato chips at photographers whom he calls "the snap pack."

Slouching against the seats with a hand in his jeans pocket, he told reporters he could sense from his crowds that unlike in South Carolina — where Gingrich defeated him by an embarrassing 12-point margin — momentum was breaking his way. And he shrugged off Gingrich's vow to stay in the race through the Republican convention in Tampa.

"That's usually an indication that you think you're going to lose," he said bluntly.

Still, in his public appearances and in millions of dollars of ad spending, Romney did not let up on Gingrich — a reflection of the hard lesson the campaign learned after Iowa, when they thought they'd knocked out the former House speaker only to see him rise again.

Seizing his opportunity to deliver a death blow to Gingrich's campaign, Romney has relentlessly pounded Gingrich this week for his work as an advisor for mortgage giant Freddie Mac — trying to show the fighter streak that some in his party have doubted he possesses.

He kept up those attacks from his first event last week — a carefully staged round table with Floridians in foreclosure (where his advance team had to shoo away several men in Speedos at the pool outside who threatened that perfect camera shot) — to the candidate's rally Monday morning where he did not wait 30 seconds before throttling Gingrich for taking $1.6 million as a lobbyist for Freddie Mac. (Never mind that the former House speaker was a consultant, not a lobbyist, and that the money went to his firm.)

By an afternoon event in Dunedin, near Tampa, Romney had moved on to pity, telling the crowd gathered under brilliant skies at Pioneer Park that Gingrich was "sad" and "flailing around a bit trying to go after me for one thing or the other."

"You just watch it and you shake your head," he said. "It's been kind of painfully revealing to watch."

But "with a turnout like this, I'm beginning to feel we might win tomorrow," he said looking out at the hundreds spilling across the park. "What do you think?"

maeve.reston@latimes.com

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