Romney and Gingrich attacks get personal ahead of Florida vote

Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney CBS/AP

CBS/AP
MIAMI -- Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are getting down and dirty in the Sunshine state.

With 50 delegates at stake in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, the two men are in a heated, and increasingly personal, battle to seize momentum coming out of Florida, which holds its primary Tuesday.

Florida is critical because it is a bigger and more diverse state than any of the previous three contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- and those 50 delegates are the largest prize of any of the first four states (and go entirely to the winner of the primary). And it is seen as a microcosm of the entire United States and will certainly be a major battleground for either one of them in the general election against President Obama.

And that's a major reason the former House speaker and former Massachusetts governor have been attacking each other relentlessly, with some of the charges becoming highly personal at times. Gingrich has called Romney "breathlessly dishonest" and someone who has run "a campaign of vilification."

The other two Republicans still in the race, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, have essentially written off Florida and are focusing their respective campaigns elsewhere.

Gingrich, who has seen his poll numbers rise and fall based on the relative strength of how well he has done in the debate performances, is on the back foot after his two worst performances last week. Romney, on the other hand, realized he needed to up his game and hired a new debate coach. Brett O'Donnell, a noted debate coach who has won awards for teaching both college students and big-time politicians, was hired immediately after Gingrich won South Carolina on January 21.

Full CBS News coverage: Newt Gingrich

And now, after his strongest debate performance Thursday night, Romney is surging in the polls, with a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday showing him ahead of Gingrich by 43 percent to 29 percent. Less than a week earlier, they were in a statistically tied with Romney at 36 percent and Gingrich at 34 percent.

On top of the strong debate performance last Thursday, Romney is regaining his front-runner status with ruthless television and radio ads in Florida, where he has outspent Gingrich by 5 to 1, according to the Washington Post.

Full CBS News coverage: Mitt Romney

In one ad, the Romney campaign simply replayed a 1997 clip from NBC News reporting on the reprimand Gingrich received as speaker of the House for violating House ethics rules. The only mention of Romney is at the end, when it shows Romney approving the message.

Gingrich, for his part, is trying to portray Romney as unelectable and unpalatable to the conservatives in the party who are already skeptical of his credentials. He has changed from calling Romney a "Massachusetts moderate" to labeling him a "liberal" in an interview today on "CBS This Morning."

And on Sunday, he told CBS' Face the Nation Sunday that "facts don't matter" to Romney.

"I think when people understand how many different times... he said things that weren't true, his credibility is going to just, frankly, collapse," Gingrich said. (watch at left)

Meanwhile, Romney launched a full-throated rebuttal, hastily scheduling interviews late Sunday with all three television networks to hit Gingrich.

"Speaker Gingrich is not revealing himself to be the kind of person I think he would want to be seen in this race for president, because fundamentally, we look for qualities in a president, but we don't look for whining and excuses," Romney told CBS News political director John Dickerson.

Romney appears headed for a victory Tuesday, but Gingrich has vowed to take his fight "all the way to the convention,"when the formal nominating process takes place. After all, even if he wins all of Florida's 50 delegates, Romney would have just 80 of 1144 delegates needed to win the nomination, according to CBS News estimates. There are 2286 delegates total, and many of the remaining states are not "winner-take-all," so even the second place finisher can amass delegates in many of the upcoming races.

Full coverage: Campaign 2012

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    CBSNews.com Deputy Politics Editor Corbett B. Daly is based in Washington. He has worked at Reuters, Thomson Financial News and CBS MarketWatch.

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