Romney Cruising To Likely Florida Win But Not On 'Cruise Control' (The Note)

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone ) and AMY WALTER ( @amyewalter )

TAMPA, Fla. - Mitt Romney limped into Florida ten days ago after Newt Gingrich's decisive victory in South Carolina with real concerns about losing the Sunshine State. Now, he's singing a different tune.

Literally, singing.

At his final campaign rally before voters head to the polls today, Romney burst into strains of "America the Beautiful," the song that he mentions in almost every one of his stump speeches. It was a very different Romney from just one week ago.

And he's running a very different kind of campaign. Though Romney kept last night's event at The Villages retirement community in central Florida positive, at almost every other campaign stop this week he's been attacking Gingrich with a fervor we've rarely seen from him.

The former Massachusetts governor has now even taken to mocking his opponent's performance at debates in addition to driving home the notion that he is a Washington insider.

"I think the real reason he hasn't done so well connecting with the people of Florida is that people actually saw him in those debates and listened to his background, his experience and learned for, instance, that he was paid $1.6 million to be a lobbyist for Freddie Mac," Romney said at an event yesterday in Jacksonville, Fla., "and they said, 'that's not what we want in the White House.'"

The Romney campaign's assault on Gingrich has been relentless in recent days, and aides say they are confident they've "gotten in to Newt's head." They also say not to expect it to stop anytime soon.

"You're not going to see Mitt Romney go into cruise control after Florida," Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom told reporters yesterday. "I think whenever you have a candidate like Newt Gingrich out there, who is like a volcano and you don't know what he's going to be spewing next, it's important to push back against the misinformation."

And the story of what happens when polls close Florida tonight is also largely the story of an information war that was won this week by the Romney campaign and its allies who swamped Gingrich in the amount of time and money they have spent on the television airwaves.

The Gingrich campaign and the pro-Gingrich super PAC, Winning Our Future, spent a total of $3.3 million on TV ads in Florida. Compare that to the Romney campaign and the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, which have spent an astronomical $15.3 million.

In other words, Romney and his allies have outspent Gingrich and his allies by nearly $12 million - or roughly four-and-a-half times more - in the Sunshine State.

And, as Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group points out, 92 percent of all television ads that aired in Florida over the last week (Monday to Monday) were negative. And it's very likely that most of those were hurled at Gingrich.

ABC's David Muir reported for "Good Morning America" today on the state of the Florida race as voters head to the polls. WATCH:


WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? The Florida polls opened at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m., but a lot of voters will have already cast their ballots by the time polls open in Florida. That's because a sizable portion of state residents vote early or by absentee ballot. About 27 percent of the votes cast were early or absentee in the presidential primary in 2008. The reason behind this is that the state has a relaxed policy on absentee voting. Unlike in many other states, any eligible voter can opt to vote by absentee ballot, regardless of where they plan to be on Election Day. Florida also allows voters to cast their ballots early, should they so chose. The Florida Division of Elections allows counties to hold early voting beginning 10 days before an election, and ending on the third day before the election is scheduled. The Florida Division of Elections estimates the Republican early turnout at 293,760 votes.

POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY: Two key areas of the state to watch will be the North/Panhandle region and the South Central region. Populous and conservative, the South Central region is traditionally a key part of the state for Republican candidates. McCain had a strong victory in the region in the 2008 general election with 54 percent of the vote to Obama's 46 percent. The region includes major cities such as Naples and Fort Myers, but it will be particularly important in this cycle for an additional reason: underwater mortgages.

The other region to watch is the North/Panhandle section of the state. The area is heavily Republican. While the region does include a large Democratic base in the city of Jacksonville, much of the surrounding area, particularly the more rural areas, are very socially conservative. And since Florida's primary is only open to registered Republicans, the Democratic population of Jacksonville will likely not be much of a factor in the area. -ABC's Elizabeth Hartfield

WHAT'S AT STAKE? Florida is the first big winner-take-all state in the Republican primary, and it will award 50 delegates-more than three times the number of delegates controlled by New Hampshire (12), and almost as many as Iowa (28) and South Carolina (25) combined. All three of those states awarded delegates on a proportional basis, but all 50 of Florida's delegates will go to one statewide winner.

DOING THE DELEGATE MATH. Regardless of who wins the Florida primary, the GOP campaign figures to last a while. Right now, Newt Gingrich leads the delegate race with 23-out of 2286 total and 1144 needed to win the nomination. That should give some indication of how far Republicans are from selecting a nominee. Gingrich won all of those delegates in South Carolina. Romney has 21, including the seven he won in New Hampshire, the two he won in South Carolina, and the 12 unbound Iowa delegates ABC News estimates will support him, based on the caucus vote results there. ABC News estimates Santorum will receive the support of 13 unbound Iowa delegates. Given that Gingrich could sway those Iowa votes later in the campaign, Romney technically only has nine delegates, and Santorum has zero, against Gingrich's 23. -ABC's Chris Good

VIDEO OF THE DAY: BEHIND THE SCENES ON THE ROMNEY BUS. ABC News' Jonathan Karl reports: "I've had a chance to spend some time with Mitt Romney on the campaign trail in Florida, including a chance to capture some otherwise unseen moments with my iPhone. We caught up with him at an unannounced lunch stop at McDonalds - he's been shaping an everyman image, don't forget - and he does seem to genuinely enjoy his two burgers, no cheese, and small order of fries. Watch the video and notice how the lady behind the counter is all business despite the fact that she may be serving the next president of the United States."



THE TRUMP PRIMARY: ENDORSEMENT COMING SHORTLY. Donald Trump wouldn't indicate which of the remaining four Republican candidates would get his support, but he did single out Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in an interview this morning with ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "I'm friendly with both. I respect both.  I like both…They both want my endorsement.  We'll see what happens but, in a very short time I'll be making an endorsement," Donald Trump said. "Not today, not right now," he added. Trump won't make a third party bid if the person he endorses becomes the nominee, he said. And because he is prohibited from having both a TV show and a presidential campaign, he could not make a run until May.  But he hopes it won't come to that. "Number one, I'd rather endorse a great candidate that's going to do a great job and win the election and become a great president.  That's the number one option for me," he said.

ROMNEY AND THE LATINO VOTE. A key element to Romney's Florida revival has been his widespread support among the state's Latino voters, ABC News' Matthew Jaffe reports. Florida has the third-largest Hispanic population in the country. According to data from the Florida Division of Elections compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos make up 13.1 percent of the state's 11.2 million registered voters. Whereas four years ago Latinos opted en masse for McCain, this time around they appear poised to back Romney. According to a recent poll conducted by Latino Decisions for ABC News and Univision, Romney enjoys a 49-17 percent lead over Gingrich among Cuban-Americans, the state's most powerful Latino voting bloc, and a 22-12 edge among Puerto Ricans. "His showing among Hispanic voters, I think, will be particularly important, because whoever the nominee is better be able to win the confidence and the support of the Hispanic community, at least a significant proportion of them," Republican strategist Carlos Curbelo said. While Romney was unable to secure the support of the state's hugely popular Sen. Marco Rubio, he did win the backing of a handful of some other influential Cuban-American lawmakers in Congress such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart. … "Romney is now a known quantity here. He's been campaigning here for six years. The No. 1 issue for Hispanic Americans and for all Americans is jobs and the economy. And he's the candidate that voters trust in that regard," Curbelo said.

GINGRICH CITES DAYS-OLD POLL IN FLORIDA SPEECH. The majority of polls released in the lead up to the Florida primary have shown Mitt Romney increasing his lead over Newt Gingrich, but during his third stop of his fly-around Florida today, Gingrich cited a days-old poll that he said had come out just hours before his speech, as showing him tied in Florida with Romney, ABC's Arlette Saenz reports from Tampa. "Tomorrow is a really really big day, and let me just say, the polls are all over the place. We just got word of a brand new poll that came out about an hour ago that said we are now tied 35 percent," Gingrich said, as some in the crowd started to chant, "Newt! Newt! Newt!" The poll was actually released Friday and conducted early last week, when the margin between Gingrich and Romney was much smaller than it is one day before the primary. A Quinnipiac poll of likely Republican voters in Florida released Monday found Romney with a 14 point lead over Gingrich, receiving 43 percent of support compared to 29 percent garnered by the former speaker.

OBAMA GIRDS FOR FLORIDA FIGHT. ABC's Devin Dwyer reports: While Republicans dominate the political spotlight in Florida, President Obama's re-election campaign has been quietly but aggressively mobilizing operations for a general election fight over the state's 29 electoral votes. Obama now has 11 campaign field offices open across the Sunshine State - more than any GOP presidential candidate - including two new outposts that flung open their doors in Boca Raton and St. Petersburg  Sunday. On State of the Union night, Obama's Floridian supporters huddled at 194 "watch parties" that doubled as phone banks and volunteer recruitment centers, a campaign official said. Obama volunteers have also held more than 2,900 organizing events since April and will conclude  a "week of action" today, Primary Day. They've also placed an estimated 500,000 phone calls and held more than 5,400 face-to-face meetings with prospective voters, per the official.

GOODBYE, FLORIDA. HELLO, DEAD ZONE. We're about to enter the dead zone of the Republican campaign season, ABC's Chris Good notes. Florida will be the last big event for Republican presidential candidates until Feb. 28, when both Arizona and Michigan hold their contests. Between now and then lies a stretch of caucus states that have drawn little attention from candidates and will won't immediately affect the race for delegates. The next stretch of contests could be called the Ron Paul States, as he's the only candidate to devote significant attention to them, betting big on Nevada, airing a TV ad in Minnesota, campaigning in Maine, and sending out mailers in Nevada, Maine, and Colorado-all part of his long-term strategy. None of those states will dole out as many delegates as Florida, or in a manner as simple as Florida's. More on the calendar ahead, including delegates at stake in the February contests:

RON PAUL HEADS TO NEVADA WITH 'ODD' STRATEGY. Ron Paul will continue stumping for votes in the caucus states like Nevada and Maine that dominate the political calendar over the next week, ABC's Jason Volack notes. Paul does well in caucus states, where superior organization and passionate supporters play to his strengths and could allow the Texas congressman to pick up more delegates than Gingrich and Santorum combined this week. Even Republican strategist Karl Rove admitted that strategy provides Paul the biggest advantage over the next week while speaking on Fox News Monday night. "I think it's going to be a advantage of Ron Paul," Rove said on "On The Record with Greta Van Susteren." "He's been spending a lot of time on caucus states. His campaign manager announced this is going to be a big focus." While Florida Republicans will hit the polls on Tuesday, Paul will be stumping in Colorado and then Nevada. The Paul campaign said they are heavily focused on picking up Nevada's 34 delegates by turning out Hispanic and Mormon voters. It's a strategy Eric Herzik, chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Nevada Reno, finds "odd." "It's an odd strategy - Republican Latinos are not a big demographic group," Herzik told ABC News. "I don't see what the natural link is with these groups."


@rchammond : …just crossed $5 million raised for January '12. FEC report will show about $10 million raised in the last quarter of '11.

@SaraMurray : Surprise! Romney cancels morning event then reschedules it. Headquarters stop is back on.  #FL

@HotlineJosh : big problem with Romney is he's campaigned so defensively, stead of articulating center-rt message. Rubio wld help that.

@mlcalderone : NYT editorial calls for more GOP debates.

@AlexPappasDC : Cain says Newt is considering 9-9-9. But Newt is no fan of the plan.


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