Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
TAMPA, Fla. — Florida Republicans were putting an end to a raucous, big-spending, character-bashing primary campaign Tuesday as they decided whether a confident Mitt Romney or a defiant Newt Gingrich would win the state's 50 delegates, the biggest prize of the GOP race so far.
Romney grinned as he thanked campaign volunteers in Tampa, while Gingrich swooped in on polling places to shake voters' hands and complain that Romney had stymied him with outsized spending on "ads that are dishonest."
Romney, in turn, said he had been forced to defend himself on Florida's airwaves after losing to Gingrich in South Carolina — a loss he attributed to negative commercials aired on Gingrich's behalf.
"I needed to make sure that instead of being outgunned in terms of attacks, that I responded aggressively, and hopefully that will have served me well here," Romney told reporters.
Romney is heavily favored in the winner-takes-all primary, the final and possibly pivotal contest in a high-stakes month in which the former Massachusetts governor has claimed one win and two second-place finishes so far. Two other candidates — Rick Santorum and Ron Paul — have ceded Florida in favor of smaller, less expensive contests.
Gingrich dismissed suggestions that he might be hobbled by a significant loss in Florida, telling reporters outside an Orlando polling place that the race wouldn't be decided until June or July — "unless Romney drops out earlier."
Several Florida voters seemed eager for an end to the continuous volley of charges and countercharges that colored the campaign.
Dorothy Anderson, voting for Gingrich at a retirement community in Pinellas Park, Fla., said "The dirty ads really turned me off on Mitt Romney."
"In fact if he gets the nomination, I probably won't vote for him," Anderson added.
At the same polling place, Romney supporter Curtis Dempsey felt the same about voting for Gingrich if he becomes the nominee. Dempsey said "the only thing Newt Gingrich has to offer is a big mouth."
Romney and his allies have poured more than $14 million into Florida television advertising primarily attacking Gingrich, who has struggled to compete with Romney's fundraising ability, staffing and network of high-profile supporters. Gingrich and his allies spent roughly $3 million on Florida advertising, much of it attacking Romney.
In Miami's Little Havana, car salesman Osvaldo Mitat, 69, favored Gingrich. He's impressed by the former House speaker's "commitment to the Cuban community," Mitat said, and Gingrich's marital history doesn't bother him. Mitat has been divorced four times himself.
"Romney also has a past," he said. "Everyone has a past."
In Palm Beach, Julian Stoopler, a 68-year-old investment adviser, said he decided to vote for former business leader Romney. "The condition of the country has deteriorated so badly that we need a CEO to turn it around," Stoopler said.
For a time, Gingrich reset the GOP race with his overwhelming victory in South Carolina. But in the 10 days since, the contest turned increasingly hostile, Gingrich turned in uncharacteristically lackluster debate performances, and polls swung in Romney's direction.
Gingrich admitted that his momentum against Romney had slowed in Florida.
"He can bury me for a very short amount of time with four or five or six times as much money," Gingrich said in a television interview Monday. "In the long run, the Republican Party is not going to nominate ... a liberal Republican."
But, without predicting a winner or endorsing a candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told CNN: "The winner of Florida is in all likelihood going to be the nominee of our party."
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