JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - With the Florida primary creeping up in just five days, it's now or never for Newt Gingrich .
The former House Speaker will need a strong performance at tonight's debate in Jacksonville - the final face-to-face meeting between all four candidates before voters go to the polls on Tuesday - in order to stall his main rival, Mitt Romney.
Gingrich turned in a mediocre performance at Monday night's debate and poll numbers out yesterday indicate his momentum may be ebbing here after a first-place finish in the South Carolina primary last weekend.
Not only that, he's getting pummeled on the airwaves by Romney and a pro-Romney super PAC, which are spending millions to plant seeds of doubt in the minds of Florida voters about Gingrich's "erratic" behavior, his record in Congress and his work for the mortgage finance company, Freddie Mac, among other things.
Looks like it's been time and money well spent.
A new CNN-Time Magazine-Opinion Research Corporation poll out late yesterday finds Romney and Gingrich in a statistical dead heat in Florida. And although the survey shows Gingrich taking a large bite out of Romney's lead here just within the last week, there's an unmistaken trend line that should be cause for concern at Gingrich headquarters.
On the first day voters were polled (Sunday) Gingrich was up 38 percent to 32 percent, but on the second two days (Monday and Tuesday) it was Romney who had the advantage - 38 percent to 29 percent. http://abcn.ws/zhrDtf
And a new Quinnipiac University poll out today shows that in a hypothetical general election matchup Romney would be the stronger candidate to run against Obama at least as far as Florida voters are concerned. Romney and Obama are tied at 45 percent a piece while the president leads Gingrich 50 percent to 39 percent among registered voters.
All four candidates meet tonight at 8 p.m. for a debate hosted by CNN, the Republican Party of Florida, and the Hispanic Leadership Network. Ron Paul is not competing actively in Florida and Rick Santorum's poll numbers are so low, he looks out of contention.
So, Gingrich and Romney will likely have the stage mostly to themselves to make their closing pitches to voters and to make an impression that will no doubt stick with Floridians as they cast their ballots next week.
NEWT' S SILVER LINING. A dispatch from ABC's Jonathan Karl from Florida's Spacecoast: "A quick note about Gingrich's crowds in Florida: They are enormous and they are enthusiastic. In fact, Gingrich is attracting bigger, more energetic crowds here in Florida than I have seen gathered for any of the candidates in any of the other states so far." http://abcn.ws/AARgMQ
More from Jon Karl about the battle for the Sunshine State on "Good Morning America" today. WATCH: http://abcn.ws/y277MP
HIGH STAKES IN FLORIDA. ABC News Political Director Amy Walter notes that a win by Newt Gingrich would all but guarantee a long, drawn-out contest. "It will legitimize Gingrich as a serious contender (not just a guy who got lucky in South Carolina). It will lead to lots of hand-wringing by GOP leaders. The cable chatterers will be in full-blown bloviate mode about the state of the dysfunction in the Republican Party. A Romney win doesn't guarantee a quick end to the contest, but it would slow Gingrich's momentum. Other factors that could dampen Newt-mentum include the fact that there's just one debate scheduled for the entire month of February and that there are only caucuses, not primaries, for most of that month. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have all but conceded the state to the two frontrunners. Florida is a winner-take-all contest, which means all 50 delegates go to the top vote-getter. There's no incentive to try and battle for third or fourth place. And while both remain committed to staying in the race, it's clear that, for now, the battle for the nomination is a two-man race between Gingrich and Romney." http://abcn.ws/ymnLap
TUNE IN: DIANE SAWYER GOES ONE-ON-ONE WITH PRESIDENT OBAMA. Less than 48 hours after his third State of the Union address, ABCs Diane Sawyer sits down with President Barack Obama in Las Vegas where the President is hitting the road to make his case to the American people. The wide-ranging interview will give viewers the whole picture as the President attempts to address the essential issues of jobs, the economy, health care, and taxes among other topics. The exclusive network interview will air tonight on a special edition of World news broadcast from Las Vegas. Portions of the interview will also be featured across ABC News broadcasts and platforms including "Nightline," "Good Morning America," and on ABCNews.com
DEMOCRATIC COUNTER-PROGRAMMING. The Democratic National Committee is demanding more transparency from Mitt Romney. In a press conference this afternoon in Jacksonville, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz "will call on Romney to meet the standard his dad set and release at least a dozen years of returns - but will suggest that he also go further and release tax returns from his time at Bain Capital," according to the DNC.
The DNC is also rolling out Cindy Hewitt, a Miami resident who served as a human resources manager at Dade Behring before, as the DNC puts it "Romney's Bain drove the company into the ground. As she recently told the Tampa Bay Times, 'What bothers me most is that Romney's campaign says he was a creator of jobs. I didn't see that in any way, shape or form. He didn't create jobs. He slashed and burned jobs.'"
ROMNEY'S ONE PERCENT 'FLIP-FLOP'? The Democratic super PAC American Bridge is out with a new web video this morning contrasting two very different answers Romney gave about how he feels about the so-called "one percent" vs. the "99 percent." The group is calling it Romney's "latest flip." Not long ago, Romney told someone at one of his campaign events who asked what he would do for the 99 percent that like President Obama the man was trying to "divide America." But at a Univision forum in Miami yesterday, Romney said he wasn't worried about one percent - "the one percent's doing fine, I want to help the 99 percent." WATCH: http://bit.ly/wiUp68
DEBATE DAY DETAILS: Tonight's debate will be hosted by CNN, the Republican Party of Florida and the Hispanic Leadership Network. CNN lead political anchor Wolf Blitzer will moderate the two-hour presidential debate which will take place at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville at 8 p.m. ET. In addition to questions posed to the candidates by Blitzer and Florida Republicans in the audience, CNN will solicit questions and comments submitted in real-time from CNN.com, the CNN Politics fan page on Facebook and by using the #CNNDebate hashtag on Twitter.
JEB BUSH'S ADVICE FOR THE GOP. The Former Florida governor who has said he won't endorse before next Tuesday's primary pens an Op-Ed in the Washington Post today with his take on "Four ways Republicans can win Hispanics back": "First, we need to recognize this is not a monochromatic community but, rather, a deeply diverse one. Hispanics in this country include Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and many others. Some came here 50 years ago to make a better life; others came last year. Some have lots of education, some have none. … Second, we should echo the aspirations of these voters. The American immigrant experience is the most aspirational story ever told. … Third, we should press for an overhaul of our education system. Republicans have the field to themselves on this issue. Teachers unions and education bureaucrats have blocked Democrats from serious reform - it will happen only with Republican political leadership. … Finally, we need to think of immigration reform as an economic issue, not just a border security issue. Numerous polls show that Hispanics agree with Republicans on the necessity of a secure border and enforceable and fair immigration laws to reduce illegal immigration and strengthen legal immigration." http://wapo.st/wR7DOJ
DON'T MESS WITH MARCO. ABC News' Matthew Jaffe reports that Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's criticism of a Spanish-language ad released by Newt Gingrich that hit rival Mitt Romney for being "anti-immigrant" caused the former House speaker's campaign to pull the spot. Gingrich and Romney spent Wednesday feuding in an attempt to win over Latino voters at a Univision forum in Miami. Romney blasted Gingrich for the "anti-immigrant" line in the ad, saying it was "very sad" and "unbecoming of a presidential candidate." But it was not Romney's rebuke of the ad, rather Rubio's, that prompted the campaign's decision to scrap the spot. Rubio, the Republican senator considered a likely contender for the No. 2 slot on the Republican ticket, told the Miami Herald that the language used by Gingrich in the ad was "more than just unfortunate - it's inaccurate, inflammatory and doesn't belong in the campaign." "The truth," Rubio said, "is that neither of these two men is anti-immigrant. Both are pro-legal immigration and both have positive messages that play well in the Hispanic community." Spokespeople for the Gingrich campaign said Wednesday that they had taken the ad "out of rotation." http://abcn.ws/w22Yi0
TENSE ON THE TARMAC: OBAMA AND JAN BREWER. Longstanding tension between Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Democratic President Barack Obama flared into the public spotlight today just after Air Force One touched down in Phoenix, ABC's Jake Tapper and Devin Dwyer report. Brewer, who was on the tarmac to greet Obama, hand-delivered a letter before engaging the president "intensely" for several minutes, including pointing her finger directly at him, according to Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown, acting as a pool reporter for other media outlets. Accounts from both camps later said the terse talk focused on Brewer's book- "Scorpions for Breakfast: My Fight Against Special Interests, Liberal Media and Cynical Politicos to Secure America's Border." The book, which was released in November, describes a June 2010 Oval Office meeting between Obama and Brewer aimed at diffusing conflicts surrounding Arizona's controversial state immigration law and the administration's immigration policy. At the time, the White House called it a "good meeting," while Brewer's staff said it was "cordial." But Brewer paints a much different picture in her book. http://abcn.ws/xBOobW
DEBATE PRIMER: SELF-DEPORTATION EXPLAINED. ABC's Huma Khan explains self-deportation - an idea that Mitt Romney supports and that Newt Gingrich mocked at a Univision forum Wednesday, saying it was based in fantasy and that his rival "shows no concern for the humanity of the people who are already here." Nevertheless, the concept itself is real and is rooted in the conservative idea of "attrition through enforcement," that would, in the words of its chief architect Mark Krikorian, "Shrink the illegal population through consistent, across-the-board enforcement of the immigration law." The idea is that if laws and restrictions against undocumented residents are enforced more stringently, both at the federal and state level, then those immigrants would have no choice but to leave on their own. A case in point is Arizona, which in April 2010 imposed the toughest crackdown of any state to curb the growth of illegal immigrants. Another case is Alabama, where schools are now required to check their students' immigration status and law enforcement officials can arrest those who don't have paperwork. … Liberals say the policy equates to mass deportation. http://abcn.ws/y9xLK8
- Mitt Romney will deliver a speech at a Jacksonville paper company in the morning.
- Newt Gingrich starts his day in Mount Dora, Florida with a Tea Party rally at the Lakeside Inn. Gingrich then travels to Jacksonville for a Veterans event at the University of North Florida.
- Rick Santorum will hold two events in Tallahassee ending with a "Faith, Family, and Freedom" town hall. Santorum will also be in Pensacola for an Escambia County Republican Party Rally.
-2008 Republican nominee John McCain is in Florida speaking at two town halls on behalf of 2012 Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney. The town halls will take place in Sun City Center and Madeira Beach, Florida.
- Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul will head to Jacksonville, Florida this evening for the CNN Debate at the University of North Florida beginning at 8 p.m. ET.
-ABC's Josh Haskell ( @HaskellBuzz)
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