WINTER PARK — The most volatile Republican presidential primary in decades may be great drama, but Republicans increasingly worry it could be hurting the GOP's prospects against President Barack Obama in November.
"They're eating each other for lunch. They're exposing lots of things to the public that will be used against them by the other side," said Bryan Blakley, 50, who attended a Gingrich campaign stop in Winter Park on Saturday. "I'm very concerned."
Agreed Jennifer Yarbrough at the same event: "Everybody has their baggage. Character matters, but when you get so deep in people's lives and start making those the issues of the campaign, that's where your problem starts."
That sentiment lately is repeated over and over among grass-roots activists and establishment power brokers alike.
"Candidates are making lasting impressions on voters, not just primary voters, in how they campaign," former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently told Bloomberg News, lamenting the "circular firing squad" the primary had become.
Nor is there any sign the bruising fight will end any time soon. Polls show Romney heading to a comfortable victory in Florida's primary Tuesday, but Gingrich on Saturday vowed that whatever happens he'll stay in the race all the way to the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August.
Gingrich received a boost when former rival Herman Cain endorsed him during a surprise appearance at a campaign event Saturday night in West Palm Beach.
"You just had two national polls that show me ahead," Gingrich said. "Why don't you ask Gov. Romney what he will do if he loses (Florida)"
Romney and his allies have outspent Gingrich on Florida TV ads by 3 to 1 so far, and the attacks on Gingrich's character and record squelched the momentum Gingrich had after winning the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21. But the negative primary contest has taken a toll on Romney as well: recent national polls show that the number of independent voters who have a negative view of Romney has risen by anywhere from 20 to 50 percentage points.
Campaigning in the Orlando area Saturday, the former Massachusetts governor looked like the confident frontrunner, focusing his barbs on Obama. Meanwhile, TV ads and surrogates continued to attack Gingrich.
A new Romney ad released this weekend focused on the day in 1997 when Gingrich received an ethics reprimand from the House while serving as speaker and was ordered to pay a $300,000 fine.
Most of the 30-second ad is NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw's nationally broadcast description on the evening news. "By an overwhelming vote, they found him guilty of ethics violations; they charged him a very large financial penalty, and they raised — several of them — raised serious questions about his future effectiveness," Brokaw said that night, and now again on televisions across Florida.
Both NBC and the former newsman registered objections. The network called on the campaign to stop using the footage and Brokaw said in a statement, "I do not want my role as a journalist compromised for political gain by any campaign."
A Romney adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, said the campaign wasn't likely to stop running the ad. "We believe it falls within fair use," he said. "We didn't take the entire broadcast; we just took the first 30 seconds."
Sarah Palin weighed in on Facebook, decrying the tenor of the Florida primary and saying the GOP establishment is unfairly trying to destroy Gingrich to end the primary as quickly as possible.
"Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater, the fathers of the modern conservative movement, would be ashamed of us in this primary," she wrote. "Without this necessary vetting process, the unanswered question of Gov. Romney's conservative bona fides and the unanswered and false attacks on Newt Gingrich will hang in the air to demoralize many in the electorate. The tea party grassroots will certainly feel disenfranchised and disenchanted with the perceived orchestrated outcome from self-proclaimed movers and shakers trying to sew this all up."
At Aloma Baptist Church in Winter Park, Gingrich commanded a crowd of at least 1,000 and got standing ovations for stating he would eliminate federal funding for stem cell research and immediately remove the White House czars Obama created.
Gingrich made an appeal to voters who may be favoring Romney or Rick Santorum. "If we nominate a moderate, we are in real trouble, it's that simple," he said, gigging Romney. He called Santorum a solid conservative, then added, "But the fact is, he's not going to win in Florida."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.