TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney oozed confidence and a defiant Newt Gingrich seemed to acknowledge his momentum had been checked, at least for now, as Florida Republicans voted today to decide who gets the state’s 50 delegates, the biggest prize yet in the Republican presidential nomination contest.
Romney is heavily favored in the winner-take-all primary, the final and possibly pivotal contest in a high-stakes month in which the former Massachusetts governor has claimed one win and two second-place finishes so far. On Monday, he campaigned so optimistically that he broke into song.
Without predicting a winner or endorsing a candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told CNN today: “The winner of Florida is in all likelihood going to be the nominee of our party.”
But Gingrich would have none of that talk. Outside a polling place in Orlando today, he told reporters the race wouldn’t be decided until June or July — “unless Romney drops out earlier.”
In Palm Beach, Julian Stoopler, a 68-year-old investment adviser, said he’s always liked Gingrich but ultimately decided to vote for former business leader Romney. “The condition of the country has deteriorated so badly that we need a CEO to turn it around,” Stoopler said.
In Miami’s Little Havana, car salesman Osvaldo Mitat, 69, favored Gingrich. He’s impressed by the former House speaker’s “commitment to the Cuban community,” Mitat said, and Gingrich’s marital history doesn’t bother him — Mitat has been divorced four times himself.
“Romney also has a past,” he said. “Everyone has a past.”
For a time, Gingrich reset the GOP race with an overwhelming victory in South Carolina. But in the 10 days since, the contest has turned increasingly hostile and polls have swung in Romney’s direction.
“He can bury me for a very short amount of time with four or five or six times as much money,” Gingrich said in a television interview. “In the long run, the Republican Party is not going to nominate … a liberal Republican.”