Everybody has the right to stay in as long as they think they can get the delegates that they need. —MItt Romney
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — No one expects the race for the GOP presidential nomination to be settled by the results of Tuesday's Florida primary, but Mitt Romney said it will be his name on the November ballot.
Romney's chief rival in Florida, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is promising to take his fight for the nomination as far as the floor of the Republican National Convention in August.
"That's an indication that you're going to lose," Romney told reporters aboard a chartered flight Monday between Jacksonville and Clearwater. "When you say you're going to go on no matter what happens, it's usually not a good sign."
He said he expects to have the 1,144 delegates required before the convention but said "everybody has the right to stay in as long as they think they can get the delegates that they need."
One of Romney's top surrogates on the campaign trail, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said a victory in Florida will generate momentum going into Nevada's caucus vote Saturday and the elections that follow.
"People want to get behind a winner," Chaffetz said. "This is huge. It's the biggest fight so far. This is a critical, critical state."
After Florida, he said the race turns "rapid fire. It truly becomes a national fight from here on out" as the pace of the primary calendar accelerates with multiple states voting at the same time, including 11 on Super Tuesday, March 6.
Utah's June 26th presidential primary is the last in the nation. The state gave Romney a whopping 90 percent of the vote in the 2008 GOP primary over the party's eventual nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
There was a push to move up Utah's primary to give Romney an early victory, but lawmakers balked at the estimated $3 million price tag of holding the primary on Super Tuesday again.
Chaffetz said that's understandable.
"Those decisions were made a long time ago for fiscal reasons. You've got to respect that," the congressman said. "I appreciate the state promoting frugalness."
Chaffetz and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who is serving as an advisor to Romney's campaign, are both headed to Nevada later this week.
Longtime Romney supporter Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said none of the remaining candidates are likely to be ready to leave the race right away.
Besides Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum are still in the running. Both have left Florida and are campaigning in other states.
"This foursome may stay in the race for awhile, but I think a decisive victory for Romney in Florida will pretty much wrap it up in the eyes of the public and the media," Jowers said. "The only thing left will be going through the motions."
Romney indicated he could be in for a long battle.
"I think there are states that are ahead that we all know are going to present challenges and opportunities for the other candidates and for me as well," he said. "I don't think you can ever count on a state being in your corner."
Gingrich's campaign took a page out of the Romney playbook Monday morning, sending a surrogate to talk to reporters gathered at a heavy equipment company in Jacksonville for a Romney rally. Chaffetz has been attending Gingrich events in Florida for several days.
"We're going all the way to convention," Rick Tyler, a senior strategist for the super PAC supporting Gingrich. "We'll see you all there. I'm sorry, we're going to make this exciting."
Gingrich himself has told reporters in Florida this week "it's very likely that at the convention there will be a non-Romney majority and maybe a very substantial one" that can be converted into a Gingrich win.
Roger Nieuwkoop, among the more than 1,000 people filling a park in Dunedin's tidy downtown to hear Romney, said Gingrich should rethink that plan.
"He can talk. He's feisty. That's not what we need," Nieuwkoop said. "I hope he comes around once it's clear he's not going to be the nominee."
The bitter back-and-forth between Gingrich and Romney in Florida has helped ready the Republican's choice to face Democratic President Barack Obama in November, he said.
"It's sort of like being battle-hardened," Nieuwkoop said. The GOP nominee "is going to be getting it with both barrels, so they ought to learn to handle it now."
Patricia Treib of Safety Harbor said even a big win for Romney in Florida won't settle the race for other Americans.
"I don't know what the mood of the rest of the country is," Treib said. "I think it would have (been) more easily predicted if he had won in South Carolina."
Romney said he "feels good" going into Tuesday's primary, the first election since his disappointing loss to Gingrich in South Carolina on Jan. 21.
Throughout the day, he attracted large and enthusiastic crowds as he went from northern Florida, to the Tampa Bay area, to a massive retirement complex in central Florida.
Romney has adopted tougher talk on the campaign trail in Florida, directly attacking Gingrich for his work with the government-backed mortgage lender Freddie Mac.
Senior campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney's just fighting back, after being hammered in South Carolina for his own business dealings turning around troubled companies.
"We came out of South Carolina having taken a pretty good licking from Newt Gingrich's committee, from Newt's super PAC, from some of the other candidates," Fehrnstrom said. "They were all pouring negative on Mitt. Our reaction to that is not to complain or to cry about it. But we're not going to sit still, either."
Romney faced rejection in South Carolina from some evangelical voters who were uncomfortable with his Mormon faith because they don't view him as a fellow Christian. That sentiment has been slow to surface in Florida.
Andy Eddy of Oakland Park said it's there, though.54 comments on this story
"I've seen it and I've heard it," said Eddy, a native New Yorker who moved to Florida 40 years ago. He said he appreciates that Romney "has a sense of what it's like to face a degree of discrimination, whether it's subliminal or in the open."
In conservative northern Florida, Romney supporter Fabienne Hourihane said religion shouldn't be an issue.
"We're voting for a president not a preacher," Hourihane said. "People think he's in a cult. A cult lives in a compound and he doesn’t live in a compound. He celebrates Christmas and Easter, so I don't have a problem at all."