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Published Jan. 30, 2012

Roller coaster really does describe the 2012 Republican presidential race, especially the Florida primary that only a week ago looked like Newt Gingrich's to lose.

RealClearPolitics keeps an average of polls, and it tells the story: On Jan. 21, polls showed Mitt Romney with an average 18-point lead over Gingrich in Florida. They were tied in Florida by Monday, Jan. 23, and a day later Gingrich led by more than 7 percentage points. The Gingrich lead dropped to 3 points the next day, and by Thursday, Romney was up 5. The RealClear average on Saturday showed Romney leading by 8 percentage points - and that did not include the new Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll showing Romney leading by 11 points.

Part of Gingrich's decline had to do with Romney's strong Florida debates and Gingrich's lackluster ones, but mainly it's about TV ads. Nothing moves numbers in Florida like TV commercials, and Romney and his allies grounded Gingrich with overwhelmingly negative ads. Romney and his supporters have outspent Gingrich on TV by more than 3-1 in Florida.

For Republicans eager for an orderly, unified convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum Aug. 27-30, a comfortable Romney win in Florida is good news. Don't expect Gingrich, Rick Santorumor Ron Paul to pull the plugs on their campaigns any time soon, but back-to-back Gingrich wins in South Carolina and Florida would make a messy floor fight for delegates far more likely.

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Missing in action

It's hard to imagine any previous Florida governor keeping as low a profile during presidential primary week as Gov. Rick Scott did last week.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush received more attention nationally by declaring - again - that he would stay neutral in the primary.

Four years ago, Charlie Crist made a surprise, last-minute endorsement of John McCain. More than four in 10 Florida Republicans, overwhelmingly McCain voters, said it was an important influence on their vote. A recent poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found 12 percent of Florida Republicans said a Scott endorsement would make them more likely to support his candidate and 41 percent said less likely.

Probably just as well, since few people noticed last week when Scott paraphrased the famous Holocaust saying by Martin Niemoller - "Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew ..." - to describe criticism of Romney's record in venture capitalism.

"We've got to defend the freedom of the free market," Scott said after paraphrasing the quote. "If we don't defend the free market, they'll pick on somebody. Now they're picking on Bain Capital, then they'll pick on somebody else."

Scott press secretary Lane Wright later told the Associated Press that the comment was used to make a point, and should not been seen as a Holocaust comparison.

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Snubbing Tampa Bay

Ask almost any veteran Florida campaign pro about the state's main political battleground and they'll invoke Tampa Bay - the largest media market, which accounts for about one in four Florida votes in the primary and the general election.

You wouldn't know it by where the candidates have spent their precious campaign time this week. Romney and Gingrich each did a couple of Tampa Bay appearances around Monday's debate, but other than that the candidates have largely bypassed the area.

Look for some return engagements as primary day looms. Gingrich is scheduled to stop at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz this morning, and is expected to hold an airport rally in Tampa on Monday. Romney is expected in Dunedin on Monday and Tampa on Tuesday to watch election-night returns.

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Greer backs Romney

Somehow we doubt this will make it into any Romney campaign news release, but former state GOP chairman Jim Greer came to Romney's defense last week after Gingrich said Romney's campaign is tied to Crist because they shared campaign strategists.

"Romney advisers never were Crist believers!" Greer, who faces grand theft and money laundering charges for allegedly siphoning money from the state party, emailed Buzz.

"As someone who knows first hand, I can say that the people who worked for Crist including those who are now working for Romney were very concerned and frustrated with Gov. Crist's lack of commitment to conservative principles and several were already preparing to leave the Crist campaign even before Crist left the GOP. A united party is the best chance the GOP has to winning the White House and it should start with ending these type of attacks."

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Not presidential

No Floridian has ever been elected president, though Bob Graham and Reubin Askew did give it a try. Stumping for Romney in Sun City Center last week, McCain noted that Arizona has a much worse presidential record. Arizonans who lost presidential bids include McCain, Barry Goldwater, Mo Udall and Bruce Babbitt.

"Arizona may be only state where mothers don't tell their children they can grow up and be president," McCain quipped.

Actually, Minnesota mothers might say the same thing after this cycle.

Unsuccessful presidential contenders from the North Star State include Harold Stassen, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann.

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Winner of the week

Florida broadcasters. These are tough times for many advertising budgets, but Florida's competitive primary did wonders for the bottom line of TV stations across the state. By the time the votes are tallied Tuesday, the campaigns and assorted political groups weighing in are expected to have spent about $20 million on TV commercials.

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Loser of the week

Newt Gingrich. He's a much more effective underdog than front-runner. In Florida, the bombastic debater who delighted Republicans in South Carolina looked more like the playground bully unprepared when somebody hits back.