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Monday, January 30, 2012

Romney opens double-digit lead in Florida polls

ORLANDO, Fla. – Mitt Romney opened a commanding lead in Florida on Sunday, driving his rivals to start shifting their sights to other states as more suitable battlegrounds to keep challenging him for the Republican presidential nomination.

Three new polls showed the former Massachusetts governor seizing a double-digit lead over his nearest competitor, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, in Florida, where voting will end on Tuesday.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania trailed far behind, with little hope of victory in a state where the winner will take all 50 delegates, and the rest will get nothing.

Gingrich planned to barnstorm the state by air Monday in a primary-eve push to close the gap. But he also looked past the likely loss on Tuesday, insisting that the anti-Romney vote eventually will coalesce around him. “We will go all the way to the convention,” he said Sunday.

Santorum, who suspended campaigning to be at the hospital bedside of his 3-year-old daughter, sent surrogates to Florida. He looked ahead to the next contest on Feb. 4 in Nevada. His campaign is opening an office in Las Vegas.

And Paul, who already abandoned Florida, wrapped up two days of campaigning in Maine, which also holds caucuses on Feb. 4. “I think that’s a real good place for us to break through,” he said Sunday.

Romney opened his big lead in Florida as Gingrich’s bounce off a win in South Carolina evaporated.

Romney led Gingrich by 42 to 27 percent in a new NBC-Marist poll, one of three polls with similar margins. Santorum had 16 percent and Paul had 11 percent.

“Mitt Romney has shored up support among his key backers while cutting his losses among Tea Party voters,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “The net effect is that he is in the driver’s seat as Tuesday’s primary approaches.”

The survey found that the last debate Thursday evening did nothing to help either of the top two candidates. Romney lost 3 percentage points after the showdown, and Gingrich lost 4 points.

The only candidate who gained was Santorum, his support jumping 5 points after the debate.

Gingrich blamed the deluge of ads aired by Romney and a pro-Romney political action committee.

“He has a basic policy of carpet-bombing his opponent. He doesn’t try to build up Mitt Romney. He just tries to tear down whoever he’s running against, and it has an effect,” Gingrich said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And we are in a very tough campaign down here.”

Romney countered that Gingrich lost support in Florida because voters got a good look at him, particularly in two debates in the state.

“The reason Speaker Gingrich has been having a hard time in Florida is the people of Florida have watched the debates and listened to the speaker, have listened to the other candidates and have said, ‘You know what? Mitt Romney’s the guy we’re going to support,’” Romney said in Naples, Fla.