ABC News’ Michael Falcone reports:
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The war for the 2012 Republican nomination is being waged on many fronts — in the polls, on the airwaves, and, of course, at the ballot box. But when it comes to the competition over crowd size, Newt Gingrich appears to be winning big in Florida.
Since Tuesday, Gingrich has been welcoming his largest crowds of the campaign while rival Mitt Romney has been attracting more modest audiences.
The Romney campaign insists that’s about to change. Campaign sources say they have been purposely focused on driving their talking points this week at what they call “message events” rather than turning out huge crowds, but they plan to hold larger events this weekend around the state.
Roughly 500 people showed up for a Gingrich rally Friday morning in Mount Dora, Fla. Romney drew less than half that number at an event outside a struggling paper company 125 miles to the north in Jacksonville.
And hundreds turned out to hear Gingrich at a Spacecoast town hall meeting on Wednesday — so many that the local fire marshal turned spectators away. Gingrich attracted an estimated 2,500 people to an airplane hangar in Sarasota on Tuesday afternoon, and as many as 5,000 joined him for an outdoor rally at a park in Naples that night.
Romney’s crowds, meanwhile, have been smaller. He drew around 500 people to a rally in Ormond Beach, Fla. on Sunday night. And between 200 and 250 people turned out for other events in the state like his speech in a neighborhood of foreclosed homes in a suburb of Fort Myers on Tuesday.
And it hasn’t been for lack of trying. One woman in the audience at Romney’s Friday event in Jacksonville said she had been contacted not once but twice by campaign volunteers inviting her to come to the speech.
Crowd size is hardly a scientific measure of support in such a sprawling state, but Gingrich’s campaign aides have been quick to link the turnout over the past 48-hours to grassroots voter enthusiasm.
Whether that translates into actual votes in next Tuesday’s primary is another matter. Though the most recent polls in Florida indicate Gingrich narrowing what had been a yawning gap with Romney in Florida, there are signs his momentum may be slowing.
“At the end of the day what’s going to win elections is an organized absentee ballot program and a get out the vote effort,” said Brian Hughes, communications director for the Florida Republican Party.
Nevertheless, Gingrich campaign officials have not missed the opportunity to tout their big audiences. Campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond tweeted a photo of his candidate’s Friday morning event beside the caption: “Somewhere in the middle of the mob you can spot Newt.”
Representatives for the Romney campaign have been singing a different tune. In an interview with ABC News outside a Gingrich rally in Fort Myers earlier this week, Florida Rep. Connie Mack, a Romney supporter, told ABC News: “Getting crowds out makes the candidate feel good but it doesn’t necessarily translate into votes.”
Staying on the message the Romney campaign has been pushing, Mack added, “Not everyone is here is necessarily supporting Newt. And I think a lot of people in Florida, especially with the housing crisis, want some of the questions answered about his relationship with Freddie Mac.”
ABC News’ Jonathan Karl, Gregory Simmons, Emily Friedman, Elicia Dover, Arlette Saenz, Shushannah Walshe and Russell Goldman contributed reporting.