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Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich: Florida polls sharply diverge in final stretch

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 31 2012 12:29 a.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks to a crowd of supporters at Page Field in Fort Myers, Fla., Monday, Jan. 30, 2012.

Associated Press

» View our political blog, with live updates and analysis of the Florida primary.

Less than 24 hours before Florida polls open, the Real Clear Politics average gives Romney an 11.5 point advantage, but the latest polls show the lead narrowing on the final stretch.

"The race will be tighter than expected," said InsiderAdvantage chief pollster Matt Towery in NewsMax, which does seem to have a dog in the fight.

The large RCP average masks an enormous gap between three polls that show large leads and two others released this weekend with much closer margins.

In the large lead column, Rasumussen gives Romney a 16 point edge, Survey USA 15 points and Quinnipiac 14.

The Insider Advantage poll show the narrowest gap, at 35.7 percent to 31.1 percent, but that poll is of registered voters who say they will be voting, rather than the more rigorous "likely voters" targeted by Rasmussen.

Public Policy Polling — which was quite accurate down the stretch in both New Hampshire and South Carolina — shows a 7 point Romney lead, but the internals are more interesting. While Gingrich continues to lead among Evangelicals and Tea Partiers, his margins are narrower than in South Carolina.

But note the early voting: PPP found that 34 percent of respondents in Florida have already voted and here Romney holds a 45-33 percent advantage.

According to PPP, "that puts Gingrich in a position where he'd have to not only win the election day vote, but win it by 6 or 7 points to upset Romney in the state. The kind of reversal necessary to make that happen seems unlikely to occur in the next 48 hours."

The Romney surge over the past week came after Gingrich opened up a significant lead following his win in South Carolina. Most of that shift came not in erosion from Gingrich but rather in gains by Romney among undecided voters.

The surge in polling follows a key Romney camp decision to go for the kill after losing South Carolina, coordinating an assault from conservative and Republican luminaries, questioning Gingrich's record and character, and leveraging an overwhelming financial advantage.

In the last week alone, according to the Associated Press, Romney and his supporting super PAC outspent Gingrich and his super PAC $6.8 million to $2.2 million.

Romney started the surge after South Carolina with two aggressive debate performances in which he was uncharacteristically combative and direct, repeatedly sparring with Gingrich to keep him off guard.

The Romney effort in Florida is meant not only to win the state, but also to signal clearly that Romney will not hold back against an adversary, either now or in November. Meanwhile, Gingrich told reporters that regardless of the outcome in Florida he plans to "go all the way to the convention," signaling that he does not mean to step aside early to allow party unity to rebuild before November, as Romney did for McCain in 2008.

The last time a GOP nomination was contested through the convention was in 1976, when Ronald Reagan's tough battle against Gerald Ford is thought to have cost the latter dearly in a tight general election fight against Jimmy Carter.

The fractured polling creates an awkward dynamic for Romney in managing perceptions. Whereas a week ago Romney would have welcomed a narrow Florida victory, with some polls now pushing 20 point margins, a Romney victory as low as 5 points could be spun as a moral victory by the Gingrich camp.

The seesaw polls in Florida come against a backdrop that shows Gingrich continuing to outpoll Romney among GOP voters nationally. But meanwhile, Romney runs neck and neck with Obama in critical swing states, while Gingrich trails the president by double digits.

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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