Mitt Romney needed Florida to resuscitate his campaign after a South Carolina routing, and on Tuesday, Florida is poised to deliver big.
A new Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll found Romney easily beating Newt Gingrich among likely Republican primary voters, with 42 percent support to Gingrich's 31 percent. Rick Santorum trails with 14 percent, followed by Ron Paul at 6 percent.
What looked like a neck-and-neck race at the start of last week quickly shifted in Romney's favor as he and his allies drowned Gingrich on Florida TV and the former House speaker turned in two listless debate performances.
Romney leads in every region of the state — and by 16 percentage points in Tampa Bay. The two Republican front-runners are closest in conservative North Florida, where Romney has 36 percent support and Gingrich 31 percent.
"Romney's margin is largely driven by Republican women, and he also has a very strong base of support among the Hispanic community,'' said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the poll.
Gingrich and Romney are essentially tied among men, but Romney has a 19-point lead over Gingrich among women. Gingrich's cocky persona, combined with his three marriages and record of infidelity, helps account for that gender gap, Coker said.
The survey also underscores President Barack Obama's challenge over the next nine months in winning Florida a second time. Only 43 percent of all Florida voters have a favorable impression of Obama, and 41 percent have an unfavorable opinion. Forty-nine percent disapprove of the president's job performance and 46 percent approve.
Romney today is beating the president in Florida, 48 percent to 44 percent, the only Republican to do so. Gingrich trails Obama by 9 percentage points, 50 percent to 41 percent, and Santorum trails 50 percent to 39 percent.
The telephone survey of 800 registered Florida voters — all likely to vote in the general election — was conducted Jan. 24-26 for the Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13. The poll was conducted by Mason-Dixon, a nonpartisan, Jacksonville-based company. The survey also included an over-sampling of 500 likely Republican primary voters for the GOP primary questions. The margin of error overall is 3.5 percentage points. For GOP primary questions, the margin of error is 4.5 percentage points.
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The poll offers little good news for Gingrich in Florida. Barring a last-minute surprise, Romney is heading toward a comfortable Florida win that will re-establish him as the heavy favorite to win the nomination.
Gingrich's insurgent candidacy has drawn big, energetic crowds across the state, but he lacks the money and campaign muscle of Romney. Multiple Romney mailers went to Republicans starting in early January as they started receiving absentee ballots, while Gingrich mailers hit as late as Saturday even to Republicans who voted weeks ago.
In a state with 10 media markets, TV ads are crucial, and Romney and his allies have buried Gingrich with spots attacking the former speaker's ethics controversies in Congress and his consulting work for home loan backer Freddie Mac. Ads also sought to cast him as erratic.
An independently run pro-Romney super PAC has spent at least $10.7 million in Florida — overwhelmingly on ads lacerating Gingrich — while a pro-Gingrich committee has spent about $3.9 million. On top of that, the Romney campaign has spent nearly $6 million in Florida compared with about $1 million by Gingrich's.
Standout performances at the widely watched debates would have helped Gingrich compensate for Romney's overwhelming campaign ad advantage, but Gingrich failed to deliver. Instead, he found himself on the defensive against a newly aggressive Romney determined to halt Gingrich's South Carolina-driven momentum. The former speaker complained about the quiet audience at Monday's Tampa Bay Times/NBC News debate, and the Romney campaign made sure the rowdier audience Thursday in Jacksonville was dominated by Romney supporters.
The Times/Herald/Bay News 9 poll was completed just as the Jacksonville debate started. Many observers said Santorum had the most impressive performance.
"If you see those (Santorum) numbers pop up closer to 20, that is going to be strictly from the debate," Coker said, noting that Santorum has not been running TV ads in the state and has little campaign organization.
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Four years ago, John McCain beat Romney in Florida by 5 percentage points, largely thanks to Romney's anemic showing in South Florida and among Hispanic Republicans. This year Romney has a 26-point lead in South Florida and 24-point lead among Hispanic voters, the poll shows.
"He's completely flipped the table in southeast Florida and with Hispanic voters this time around,'' Coker said.
Juan Perez, 69, a retired Cuban-American Republican in Miami, said he admires Romney's business background.
"He's a dedicated businessman," Perez said. "At least he has made his own money and is a capable businessman. He is also an ethical and moral man."
More bad news for Gingrich: His attacks on Romney's venture capital career leading Bain Capital — and in some cases profiting on companies that went under or laid off workers — has done little to sway Florida Republicans. At the same time, Romney's attacks on Gingrich's consulting work for Freddie Mac do resonate among Florida Republicans.
Asked if they generally had a positive or negative view of Romney's career at Bain Capital, three-quarters of Republicans had a positive view and only 13 percent said negative. Asked if they generally had a positive or negative view of Gingrich's Freddie Mac consulting, 28 percent said positive and 52 percent said negative.
"I don't like the way he acts, and I don't like the Fannie thing," Virginia Driggers, a retired convenience store manager in rural Dixie County, said of Gingrich. "And there are quite a few other things I don't like either."
Among Republicans, 55 percent had a favorable impression of Romney, and 14 percent unfavorable. Forty-one percent had a favorable impression of Gingrich and 32 percent unfavorable.
Questions about Romney's record at Bain are sure to continue in the general election if he wins the nomination, and the poll indicates it will have more resonance with the broader electorate. While 74 percent of likely Republican voters said they had a positive view about his business background, among all voters only 46 percent had a positive view and 30 percent had a negative view.
"I just don't see how that can be a good thing,'' said Carla Rhea, a Tallahassee nurse and registered independent. "I kind of feel like everybody needs a job, but you can pick and choose the jobs you do and when you're hurting other people, it's just not where you should be. And that apparently, there's no line for him there."
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Still another advantage for Romney is the early vote. Among those surveyed who had voted early, nearly half had cast their ballots for Romney. "That's going to make it that much tougher for anybody to close the gap simply because he has so many in the bank," Coker said.
Magda Dube, 48, of Miami Lakes voted Thursday before the debate.
"I voted for Romney. Because Gingrich, I don't like the fact that he got money from Freddie Mac. Seems a little hypocritical," said Dube, who owns a blind-manufacturing business. "Romney managed to be successful and create a $250 million company.
"He's proven and his father has a political background."
Times/Herald staff writers Brittany Alana Davis, Alexandra Leon and Adam Beasley contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.