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INSIDERS SEE A CLOSE BATTLE IN GOP PRIMARY

Dozens of Florida's most experienced political hands are closely divided on whether Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney will win Florida's critical presidential primary Tuesday.

But the latest Florida Insider Poll by the Tampa Bay Times did draw overwhelming consensus on several questions:

- More than three-quarters of the more than 100 people who participated in the poll think Romney ultimately will win the GOP nomination, regardless of what happens in Florida.

- Nearly 9 out of 10 surveyed think Romney would be the strongest general election candidate against President Barack Obama.

- And in a sign of the toll the presidential primary has taken on the field, more than 7 in 10 think Obama will be re-elected in November - including half of the Republican insiders and every Democrat.

Our periodic Florida Insider Poll is a measure of conventional wisdom among political elites - fundraisers, campaign operatives, lobbyists and the like - and is not scientific. Romney has much of Florida's Republican political establishment in his corner, so it's not surprising most insiders view him as the strongest general election candidate.

What is striking is the growing pessimism among the Republican insiders about beating Obama.

The last time we asked for general election predictions, in November, 9 percent of Democrats said Obama would lose, and 29 percent of Republicans said Obama will win. Now, 100 percent of Democrats predict a second term for Obama and 49 percent of Republicans do.

The latest survey, conducted Wednesday and Thursday, included 41 Democrats, 57 Republicans, and six unaffiliated voters.

Overall, 52 percent predict Romney will win Tuesday, and 48 percent predict Gingrich. Among Republicans, 54 percent predict Romney and 42 percent Gingrich.

To see the Florida Insider participants, go to blogs.tampabay.com/buzz.

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