Romney rides advantages in Florida

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney takes questions from reporters at his campaign office in Tampa, Fla., Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012, during Florida's primary election day. (AP Photo / Charles Dharapak)

Even before the polls opened Tuesday morning in Florida, Mitt Romney had an estimated 50,000 vote lead that Newt Gingrich had to overcome – thanks to his campaign’s aggressive courtship of Republicans who used the state’s system of early voting.

By Monday, 603,459 early and absentee casts had been cast across Florida – 100,000 more than in the 2008 GOP primary. With more money and a slicker organization, Romney’s campaign aggressively targeted voters who had requested absentee ballots – beginning in December – and encouraged identified supporters to avail themselves of opportunities to vote early at select polling places at polling places early.

Based on polls of early voters, Florida strategists say that Romney may have gone into the primary election with a lead of 50,000 votes - or more.

That was one of several advantages Romney enjoyed in the campaign for Florida, including millions more to spend on television ads: $15.4 million from his campaign and allies, to $3.4 million from Gingrich and his allies.

 He essentially buried the former house speaker in negative attacks on his record and character.

Romney worked to paint Gingrich as a Washington insider who had cashed in his influence for corporate clients after leaving office, including mortgage giant Freddie Mac, an erratic leader and  one given to “grandiose” ideas – such as a proposal to build a U.S. colony on the moon, which Romney ridiculed.

Gingrich had come into the state with momentum from a 13-point victory in South Carolina Jan. 21. He attacked Romney, a former investment banker, as captive of moneyed interests on Wall Street and the GOP establishment in Washington.

He was reduced at the end to complaining about the attacks on him, as polls showed he was likely to lose Florida by double digits.

 Gingrich said he had never seen a candidate so “fundamentally dishonest” as Romney and said that the “anti-Romney” conservative vote – his supporters plus those of former Sen. Rick Santorum – is greater than Romney’s backing.

“He really can’t whine about negative campaigning when he launched a very negative campaign in South Carolina,” Romney told reporters Tuesday. “If you’re attacked, I’m not going to sit back. I’m going to fight back and fight back hard.”