Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
Audience members listen as Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigns at the Emma Lou Olson Civic Center, in Pompano Beach, Fla., Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012.
POMPANO BEACH, Fla. — Mitt Romney isn't taking any chances.
A day before voting begins in Florida's Republican primary, Romney is running ahead of rival Newt Gingrich in polls. The former Massachusetts governor earned positive reviews during two debates. And Romney has put the former House speaker on the defensive over ethics and Freddie Mac.
"It's only when he can mass money to focus on carpet-bombing with negative ads that he gains any traction at all," Gingrich is complaining.
But instead of stepping back and refocusing on President Barack Obama — as he did in Iowa when it became clear that Gingrich had lost — Romney is ratcheting up his rhetoric and continuing his attacks until the very end. He hopes to close the Florida campaign strongly to push Gingrich as far back as possible.
"His record is one of failed leadership," Romney said of Gingrich Sunday night at a rally in Pompano Beach, in South Florida. And Romney challenged Gingrich to "look in the mirror" to figure out why the former House speaker has fallen back in Florida.
"His record is one of failed leadership. We don't need someone who can speak well perhaps or can say things we agree with, but does not have the experience of being an effective leader," he said.
Aides say Romney's attacks are partially a response to increasingly angry rhetoric from Gingrich, who on Sunday called the former Massachusetts governor "somebody who is a pro-abortion, pro-gun-control, pro-tax-increase liberal." Gingrich also accused Romney of lying. "I don't know how you debate a person with civility if they're prepared to say things that are just plain factually false," Gingrich said.
Romney's campaign on Sunday fired back immediately, starting with the candidate and continuing with statements from top surrogates who cast Gingrich's assault as an unfair attack on Romney's character.
"Mitt Romney is man of impeccable character," said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. "It offends me that Newt Gingrich would attack the character of Mitt Romney."
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty called the attacks "over the line."
Romney's supporters particularly defended his anti-abortion credentials following Gingrich's attack. Gingrich allies are also running radio ads attacking Romney's record on the issue.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi called Romney a "champion for pro-life values" as she introduced him at the rally. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen offered a similar defense during an earlier rally with the Cuban American community in Hialeah.
In what has become a wildly unpredictable race, the momentum has swung back to Romney, who just last weekend was staggered by Gingrich's victory in South Carolina. Romney has begun advertising in Nevada ahead of that state's caucuses next Saturday, illustrating the challenges ahead for Gingrich, who has pledged to push ahead no matter what happens in Florida.
An NBC News/Marist poll published Sunday showed Romney with support from 42 percent of likely Florida primary voters, compared with 27 percent for Gingrich.
To hang onto his lead, Romney continued to paint Gingrich as part of the very Washington establishment he condemns and someone who had a role in the nation's economic problems.
"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 in Washington," Romney told an audience in Naples.
Gingrich's consulting firm was paid more than $1.5 million by the federally-backed mortgage company over a period after he left Congress in 1999.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, trailing in Florida by a wide margin, skipped campaigning to be with his 3-year-old daughter, Bella, who was hospitalized. He planned to campaign in Missouri and Minnesota early this week.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has invested little in Florida, looked ahead to Nevada. The libertarian-leaning Paul is focusing more on gathering delegates in caucus states, where it's less expensive to campaign. But securing the nomination only through caucus states is a hard task.
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The intense effort by Romney to slow Gingrich is comparable to his strategy against Gingrich in the closing month before Iowa's leadoff caucuses Jan. 3. Gingrich led in Iowa polls, lifted by what were hailed as strong performances in televised debates. But his support dropped in the face of withering attacks by Romney, aided immensely by ads sponsored by a "super" political action committee run by former Romney aides.
But Romney aides say they made the mistake of assuming Gingrich could not rise again as he did in South Carolina. Romney appears determined not to let that happen again.
Romney has three events scheduled across the state Monday. He planned events in Jacksonville and the Tampa area. Gingrich has five planned events.