JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Call it a ping-pong match or the swing of the pendulum, however you want to describe the volatile race in Florida, Mitt Romney now seems to have the upper hand.
Just days ago, it looked like Newt Gingrich might have enough momentum coming out of South Carolina to claim the top prize in the Sunshine State. But with four full days of campaigning to go until next Tuesday's primary, Gingrich's star seems to be fading.
Romney has opened up a 38 to 29 percent lead over Gingrich among Republican likely voters in Florida, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today. Compare that to the results of a poll taken just days ago showing Romney with 36 percent of likely primary voters to Gingrich's 34 percent.
"Of course, with four days before Election Day, there is time for another reversal," Quinnipiac pollster Peter A. Brown said. "Three in 10 voters say they might change their mind."
But it's unlikely that between now and Tuesday Gingrich will have a better chance than he had last night to break though and the debate was an enormous missed opportunity for him. It was Romney who pulled the attack dog rug right out from under Gingrich's feet.
And it was Romney who finally looked like a candidate who wants to win this election. He was aggressive and disciplined, and never allowed Gingrich to get the upper hand.
Several of Romney's answers were as knife-sharp as we've seen at any debate during the primary season, particularly his laundry list of projects, including the lunar colony, that Gingrich has proposed.
"In South Carolina, it was a new interstate highway, and dredging the port in Charleston. In New Hampshire, it was burying a power line coming in from Canada and building a new VHA hospital in New Hampshire so that people don't have to go to Boston," Romney said. "This idea of going state to state and promising what people want to hear, promising billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that's what got us into the trouble we're in now."
"A big idea," Romney concluded, is not always "a good idea."
Gingrich, by comparison, fell flat. The fired up and aggressive Newt we saw on the campaign trail this week was not on the stage last night. In his place was a passive and hesitant candidate. Even his attempt at turning the audience against the moderator didn't work. http://abcn.ws/zNHE19
With the debates now behind us, the fight to win the fourth nominating state will largely be waged on the ground as the campaign machines of both candidates try to drive turnout on Tuesday and engage in a fierce war on airwaves. Without the political winds at his back, Gingrich could fall prey to Romney's superior resources and organization.
Neither of those were enough to guarantee him wins in Iowa or South Carolina, but they might be in Florida.
HOW BAD WAS NEWT'S NIGHT? You know you've had a bad debate when your own spokesman can't spin it as a win, ABC's Jonathan Karl notes. "Who won?"
"It was a push," replied Newt Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond, adding, "Santorum had a good night." Not only did Romney put in his best debate performance yet, Gingrich was so slow-footed he lost a round with moderator Wolf Blitzer. "Are you satisfied right now with the level of transparency as far as [Romney's] personal finances?" Blitzer asked. It was a perfectly reasonable question given that Gingrich had made such a big deal about Romney's tax returns in the first place, but Gingrich scolded Blitzer, saying, "This is a nonsense question." But Blitzer stuck to his guns pointing out that Gingrich had said just a day earlier that Romney "lives in a world of Swiss Bank and Cayman Islands bank accounts." "I didn't say those words. You did," Blitzer said. "I did," Gingrich said. "And I'm perfectly happy to say that on an interview on some TV show, but this is a national debate." And there was Romney's opening. "Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend here?" Romney said. And so it went. Romney quite simply out-debated Gingrich - on immigration, on Freddie Mac, and even on space exploration. http://abcn.ws/z9uu7R
ABC's Jon Berman reviews the greatest hits from last night's CNN debate in Jacksonville, Fla. WATCH: http://abcn.ws/xMXgY1
VIDEO: The Florida Debate in 60 Seconds: http://abcn.ws/zNBePc
EXCLUSIVE: OBAMA WANTS A SECOND TERM 'BADLY.' President Barack Obama yesterday signaled an aggressive tact for his early re-election campaign, critiquing his Republican opponents by name and insisting he's ready to "fight with every fiber of my being" for a second term. "How much do you want it?" ABC News' Diane Sawyer asked Obama during an exclusive interview in Las Vegas. "Badly," the president said, "because I think the country needs it." "Whoever wins the Republican primary is going to be a standard bearer for a vision of the country that I don't think reflects who we are," Obama said. "I'm going to fight as hard as I can with every fiber of my being to make sure that we continue on a path that I think will restore the American dream," he said.
Obama pushed back against what he called Republicans' "rhetorical flourishes," including Newt Gingrich's oft-repeated contention that Obama is the "food stamp president." "First of all, I don't put people on food stamps," Obama said. "People become eligible for food stamps. Second of all, the initial expansion of food-stamp eligibility happened under my Republican predecessor, not under me. No. 3, when you have a disastrous economic crash that results in 8 million people losing their jobs, more people are going to need more support from government." "The larger point is this: that there's going to be a debate over the next eight, nine, 10 months about how to move the country forward," he said. "They've got an argument. They will make it forcefully. I think it's an argument that is wrong." http://abcn.ws/ywiAws (h/t ABC's Devin Dwyer)
NOTED: In the same interview, President Obama denied that he was "tense" in his airport tarmac encounter with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer Wednesday, as she has described. "I'm usually accused of not being intense enough, right," he told ABC News' Diane Sawyer, laughing. "Too relaxed." Brewer said in an interview that the president was "somewhat thin-skinned and a little tense, to say the least" and that she was "shocked by the sternness of it all." The president reportedly raised objections to Brewer's description of their meeting in June, 2010, when he met her Wednesday. In her 2011 book, "Scorpions for Breakfast," Brewer accused Obama of being "condescending" and "patronizing" and complained that she and her aides were treated coldly by White House staffers. http://abcn.ws/yxGIhu (h/t ABC's Huma Khan)
THIS WEEK ON "THIS WEEK." Two days before the crucial Florida primary, Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich goes one-on-one with ABC News senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper, this Sunday on "This Week." Then, in his State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to break through the gridlock in Washington. But can any common ground be found between congressional Republicans and the White House during an election year? House Speaker John Boehner answers the president's challenge in a "This Week" exclusive. http://abcn.ws/xcAVAj
SARAH PALIN DEFENDS GINGRICH…. "They're trying to crucify this man and rewrite history, and rewrite what it is that he has stood for all these years," Sarah Palin said in an interview on Fox Business Network last night. "It's not just Ron Paul. I believe it is also Newt Gingrich that the establishment, that the liberal media, certainly that the progressives and Democrats don't like."
…JEB BUSH CRITICIZES HIM. "Former Florida governor Jeb Bush tells National Review Online that Newt Gingrich should stop insinuating that Mitt Romney aides, due to their past work for Charlie Crist, are part of a moderate GOP conspiracy," the Review's Robert Costa reports. "Earlier this week, for example, Gingrich told supporters that Romney hired Crist staffers, and emphasized its significance. 'We discovered last night that Mitt Romney has picked up Charlie Crist's campaign manager,' Gingrich said. 'I thought that told you everything you need to know about this primary.' 'That's not a serious accusation,' Bush says. 'Candidates win elections. I'm not a big Charlie Crist fan, as you recall, but these guys shouldn't have that moniker attached to them, as if Governor Romney is part of some evil plot. That's ridiculous.'" http://bit.ly/xoLlac
GINGRICH TEAM CLAIMS DEBATE AUDIENCE BIAS. "Members of Newt Gingrich's campaign accused Mitt Romney's campaign of packing the audience for the Republican presidential candidate debate on Thursday night in Jacksonville, Fla., with its own supporters to ensure that the dynamics would be favorable to Romney," the Huffington Post's Jon Ward reports. "'They definitely packed the room,' Kevin Kellems, one of Gingrich's senior advisers, told The Huffington Post early Friday morning. 'The problem for them is their candidate, at several junctures, couldn't remember what he had said before on an issue or what the fundamental truth is on a given topic. TV viewers tend to notice and remember things like that.' A more junior member of the Gingrich campaign said in an email that it was 'obvious' that the Romney campaign had worked to make sure the audience was overly favorable toward the former Massachusetts governor. 'I was getting calls and emails from all over saying this,' the junior aide said. 'Just average people saying, 'Wait a minute.'" http://huff.to/xwHRAy
MCCAIN TELLS FLORIDIANS: VOTE ON RECORDS, NOT DEBATES. Stumping on behalf of Mitt Romney for the first time in Florida yesterday, former presidential candidate and Arizona Sen. John McCain pressed Florida voters to consider a candidate's record, not just debate performances, when choosing whom they will vote for in the Florida primary next week, ABC's Arlette Saenz notes. "I think debate performances are important," McCain told a crowd of more than 150 people at a town hall-style meeting at the Chamber of Commerce here. "I think that they're helpful in talking to the American people, but I'm not sure that debates should be the only criteria. "I think we should look at people's records. I think we should look at what they offer the American people. I think debates are helpful, don't get me wrong, but I also think that we should look at their records." McCain characterized the debates as having taken on a tone that is "not healthy" and suggested they have "deteriorated into name calling." http://abcn.ws/xrIWYu
THE TRUTH ABOUT SUPER PACS. There is no doubt that Super PACs, independent groups that are bankrolled by supporters of specific candidates, are playing a significant role in the 2012 primary campaign, ABC News' Amy Walter reports. Even so, don't blame the Citizens United ruling for the outsized influence of independent spending. Colby College professor Anthony Corrado, a nationally recognized expert on campaign finance, tells me in an email that "most of the activity that has taken place in the presidential race so far could have been conducted under the campaign finance rules of 2008." Or, even 2004. Back in 2004 there was this little group called "Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth" that was bankrolled by wealthy Texas home builder Bob Perry to the tune of $4.4 million. Also that year, two guys who wanted to see a Democrat elected to the White House, George Soros and Peter Lewis, pumped more than $38 million of their own money into an independent organization called "Americans Coming Together." Sheldon Adelson didn't need Citizens United ruling to allow him to put as much money as he wanted into an independent organization. In the olden days, pre-Citizens United, he would have formed a 527, like he did in 2008 when he put $30 million into a group called "Freedom's Watch." What the Citizens United decision does allow that wasn't the case back in earlier elections is for these independent groups to accept unlimited corporate and labor union contributions and spend the funds on candidate advertising. Big corporations, wary of the negative PR that would come with donating to a political cause, are staying out. http://abcn.ws/x5iSJN
@MattMackowiak : The next televised Republican presidential debate is 27 days away. (2/22 in Mesa, AZ, cosponsored by CNN & the Arizona GOP)
@jonathanchait : For Newt to come back *now* would be completely unprecedented in the entire history of the last three days
-Newt Gingrich is in Miami, Florida to address the Latin Builders Association. Gingrich will also speak at a conference in Miami hosted by the Hispanic Leadership Network. In the afternoon, Gingrich travels to Delray Beach for a Republican Jewish Coalition Rally.
-Mitt Romney is also scheduled to address the Hispanic Leadership Network conference in Miami. Later in the day, Romney is on the trail in Cape Canaveral where he'll discuss innovation on the Space Coast.
-Rick Santorum campaigns in Miami where he'll speak at the Latin Builders Association Conference.
-Ron Paul will hold three events in Maine including an evening town hall in Lewiston.
-John McCain will hold events on behalf of Mitt Romney in Lakeland and The Villages, Florida.
-ABC's Josh Haskell ( @HaskellBuzz)
Check out The Note's Futures Calendar: http://abcn.ws/ZI9gV
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