Orlando, Fla. — Mitt Romney opened a commanding lead in Florida Sunday, driving his rivals to start shifting their sights to other states as more suitable battlegrounds to keep challenging him for the Republican presidential nomination.
Three new polls showed the former Massachusetts governor seizing a double-digit lead over his nearest competitor, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, in Florida, where voting will end on Tuesday.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania trailed far behind, with little hope of victory in a state where the winner will take all 50 delegates, and the rest will get nothing.
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Gingrich planned to barnstorm the state by air Monday in a primary-eve push to close the gap. But he also looked past the likely loss on Tuesday, insisting the anti-Romney vote eventually will coalesce around him. “We will go all the way to the convention,” he said Sunday.
Santorum, who suspended campaigning to be at the hospital bedside of an ailing 3-year-old daughter, sent surrogates to Florida. Rather than return to the state, he announced new plans to campaign instead in four other states Monday and Tuesday.
And Paul, who already abandoned Florida, wrapped up two days of campaigning in Maine, which also holds caucuses on Feb. 4. “I think that's a real good place for us to break through,” he said Sunday.
Romney opened his big lead in Florida as Gingrich's bounce off a win in South Carolina evaporated.
Romney led Gingrich by 42-27 in a new NBC-Marist poll, one of three polls with similar margins. Santorum had 16 percent and Paul had 11 percent.
“Mitt Romney has shored up support among his key backers while cutting his losses among Tea Party voters,” said Lee Miringoff, director of The Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “The net effect is that he is in the driver's seat as Tuesday's primary approaches.”
The survey found that the last debate Thursday evening did nothing to help either of the top two candidates. Romney lost 3 percentage points after the showdown, and Gingrich lost 4 points.
The only candidate who did gain was Santorum, his support jumping 5 points after the debate.
Gingrich blamed the deluge of ads aired by Romney and a pro-Romney political action committee.
“He has a basic policy of carpet-bombing his opponent. He doesn't try to build up Mitt Romney. He just tries to tear down whoever he's running against, and it has an effect,” Gingrich said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And we are in a very tough campaign down here.”
Romney countered that Gingrich lost support in Florida because voters got a good look at him, particularly in two debates in the state.
“The reason Speaker Gingrich has been having a hard time in Florida is the people of Florida have watched the debates and listened to the speaker, have listened to the other candidates and have said, 'You know what? Mitt Romney's the guy we're gonna support,'” Romney said in Naples, Fla.
After attending church in Lutz, Fla., Gingrich said he'll press on through the spring.
“This is going to be a straight-out contest for the next four or five months,” he said. “This debate is going to go on.”
He said Romney has not yet proven he can rally the Republican Party.
“He hasn't won the majority of votes in any primary,” Gingrich told reporters. “The clearer we are about a pro-abortion, pro-gun-control, pro-tax-increase Massachusetts moderate, the less likely it is that he's going to win a majority anywhere.”
Appearing later before more than 1,000 people at The Villages at Lake Sumter Landing, Gingrich pitched his appeal to the anti-Washington mood, citing the support of Michael Reagan, Ronald Reagan's son, and kind words from 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
“The Washington establishment is coming unglued,” he said.
“They should be. I am not running for president to manage the decay of the United States to the satisfaction of the establishment,” he said, “and I am not running for president of the United States to make the Wall Street elite and the Washington elite happy.”
Santorum spent the day in Philadelphia, where his daughter was hospitalized late Saturday. Isabella Santorum, known as Bella, has a genetic condition called Trisomy 18, which causes mental and physical problems. Half of newborns with the condition do not survive their first week. Some make it to their teens, but often with serious medical and developmental problems, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Santorum aides initially said he would return to Florida when possible. But his campaign announced late Sunday that he will instead travel Monday and Tuesday to Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado, which hold caucuses on Feb. 7, and Nevada.
Paul said he was encouraged by enthusiastic audiences in Maine, though he also took a veiled shot at Romney's better financed TV campaign.
“It is a rough road, but the rough road isn't … presenting our case,” he said on CNN's “State of the Union.”
“The rough road is competing with, you know, establishment money, the big money. … We can raise those millions, but we can't compete with tens of millions of dollars for each individual state. And that's what, you know, came up in Florida. You need a lot of money.
“We're going to stay in and see what comes of it. And who knows what will come of the other two candidates. You know, there's been lots of ups and downs. So maybe there will be some downs and we might be able to pick up the pieces.”
(Diana Moskovitz of the Miami Herald contributed.)