DUNEDIN, Fla. (AP) — Make no mistake: Mitt Romney isn’t taking his foot off the gas — or off Newt Gingrich’s neck.
The Republican presidential candidate on Monday expressed confidence of victory in Tuesday’s Florida primary but also made clear that he’s girding for a long, state-by-state fight for the nomination against his chief rival and the other candidates still in the race.
“I don’t think you can ever count on a state being in your corner,” a relaxed Romney said as he flew with reporters and top aides from Jacksonville to Clearwater.
Over the course of the day, Romney continued to pummel Gingrich at every stop, even though polls show the former Massachusetts governor with a comfortable lead.
“You are not going to see Mitt Romney go into cruise control,” said senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom.
That’s what Romney essentially did after crushing Gingrich’s rise in Iowa a month ago by fiercely attacking him. Gingrich came in a dismal fourth place and his momentum was gone as the race turned to New Hampshire. Romney nearly stopped attacking his opponent, believing him politically dead, and won that state big. His jubilant advisers were envisioning an easy path to the nomination.
Then Gingrich headed to South Carolina, where he mounted a remarkable comeback and cruised to a 12 percentage point victory over Romney.
Just a week ago, Romney arrived in Florida nervous and tired after the staggering loss. He’s spent the past week attacking Gingrich at every turn and assailing him on TV, where Romney and his allies are outspending Gingrich and his backers by almost five to one.
His campaign has held repeated conference calls with surrogates bashing Gingrich for his leadership style and ties to Freddie Mac. And when Gingrich appeared on a series of Sunday news talk shows — Romney himself watched from his campaign bus — the campaign made sure he was booked on all three network TV morning shows on Monday.
In Florida, Romney’s advisers say they’ve seen the vindication of a strategy that focused on pushing Gingrich off his game, both in appearances and on the debate stage. “He’s like a bubbling volcano when he’s under pressure,” Fehrnstrom said.
As his team looks ahead to the February calendar — in particular Nevada on Feb. 4, Colorado and Minnesota on Feb. 7 and Michigan on Feb. 28 — it plans to keep up that pressure while using the other two candidates in the race against him.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul has organized extensively in Nevada, and Romney’s team is eager to talk up former Rick Santorum’s chances in Minnesota. The former Pennsylvania senator was campaigning there Monday.
“It’s not a two-person contest between Mitt and Newt Gingrich, as much as Newt might feel that way,” Fehrnstrom said.
Gingrich’s team is urging Santorum to drop out of the race to allow conservatives to consolidate their support behind a single candidate.
In foreclosure-wracked Nevada, Romney will likely keep up the message he’s been pushing in Florida: Gingrich earned $1.6 million consulting for the quasi-government mortgage giant Freddie Mac. It’s an attack Romney began early during the Florida campaign and one senior advisers say helped drive the former speaker’s poll numbers down. Aides say the argument is also likely to resonate in Nevada, where home values have fallen and the foreclosure crisis is particularly severe.
Paul, who skipped Florida in favor of states that hold caucuses instead of primaries, could make a surprisingly strong showing. The state’s large Mormon population and Romney’s 2008 win in the state could make a victory there be simply meeting expectations instead of pushing Romney forward.
Speaking to reporters, Romney emphasized the state’s active tea party — possibly offering a preview of the campaign’s effort to show he can connect with conservatives.
Gingrich, for his part, has vowed to stay in the race until the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August. On Monday, he was still talking about winning in Florida.
Romney himself showed flashes of the confidence he displayed in New Hampshire after a soaring victory speech focused exclusively on President Barack Obama.
“That’s usually the case when you think you’re going to lose, when you say, ‘I’m going to go on no matter what happens,'” Romney said of Gingrich. “That’s usually not a good sign.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.
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