COCOA BEACH, Fla. - The morning anchors on WESH-TV, the NBC affiliate in Orlando, cut away from local news and weather at 6:30 a.m. Monday for a bloc of commercials - and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich took it right in the chops.
For weeks, rival Mitt Romney and his allies have owned Florida's skies, carpet-bombing Gingrich like a wing of B-52s over Hanoi. Team Romney had outspent the Gingrich forces $15.4 million to $3.4 million through Monday, according to political sources monitoring the ad wars.
Almost all the airtime has gone toward negative attacks on the former House speaker's turbulent political career, and the 5-to-1 advantage is a major reason Romney is the heavy favorite to win Tuesday's Florida primary, the first-big state contest of the race for the nomination.
On WESH, the first ad of the bunch was a clip from the NBC network evening news in 1997, set to spooky music, reporting how Gingrich had suffered the "judgment of his peers" in the U.S. House, who found him guilty of ethics violations. The 30-second spot came from the Romney campaign.
Following it were pitches for Cirque du Soleil, the Huntington Learning Center, and the station's newscasts, and then came another flaying of Gingrich - a 60-second spot sponsored by Restore Our Future, a "super PAC" that supports the former Massachusetts governor.
"Know what makes Barack Obama happy? Newt Gingrich's baggage," a female announcer said as three cartoon suitcases smack down on an airport luggage carousel. Hundred-dollar bills fly out of one of them, as the ad details Gingrich's $1.6 million contract as a consultant to mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which conservatives blame in part for the housing market collapse.
Romney was leading Gingrich among likely GOP primary voters 43 percent to 29 percent in a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday, and 42 percent to 27 percent in a separate poll conducted by Marist University and NBC News.
After winning the South Carolina primary Jan. 21, Gingrich had the momentum and was leading in many Florida polls, seen as the aggressive conservative who could confront President Obama in the way the fired-up GOP base wants.
But Florida is a huge state with a more diverse Republican primary electorate than South Carolina, and campaigning here is expensive because of the need to buy time in 10 separate media markets. Romney performed strongly in two debates and continued an unrelenting assault on Gingrich's record and character.
Gingrich sank in the polls in Florida over the last week, though he remained even with Romney in national polls of Republicans' presidential preferences.
From Jan. 1, 2011, through Wednesday, Gingrich and a supportive super PAC, Winning Our Future, ran 210 ads in Florida on broadcast and national cable channels, compared with 12,786 spots for Romney and his allies, according to data from Kantar Media/CMAG, as analyzed by the Wesleyan Media Project.
Gingrich, thanks to a second $5 million check from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to the Winning Our Future PAC, has been able to get on the air more frequently in the closing days of the Florida campaign.
Winning Our Future, for instance, was running TV and radio ads that attacked Romney over his support for abortion rights when he was governor. The spots feature a quotation from Romney on the parental-notification issue, emphasizing that "a judge" could grant permission for a minor to have an abortion despite parental objections. What the ads do not say is that the option for judicial review is a standard feature of parental-notification laws, to protect minors from serious parental abuse and in cases of incest.
This presidential election cycle is the first since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which held that restrictions on corporate and union contributions to political campaigns were unconstitutional infringements of free speech.
As a result, interest-group ads have increased 1,600 percent in this year's GOP primary campaign compared with the 2008 cycle, the Wesleyan Media Project calculated. At least 44 percent of the ads aired in the Republican contest from the beginning of 2011 through Wednesday were paid for by interest groups, primarily the super PACs run by allies of the candidates, the scholars calculated.
Some Republicans voiced concern about all the negativity in the Florida campaign. After all, Obama's approval numbers have enjoyed an uptick in some polls recently, and a recent ABC News-Washington Post national survey found Romney and Gingrich "upside down," meaning more voters viewed them negatively than positively.
"These guys are tearing each other up. It hurts the party," George Stamas, 61, of Tarpon Springs, said of the TV and radio ads. He was attending a Romney rally Monday in Dunedin but remained undecided.
"I'll tell you the truth, I'm hashing it over trying to decide who's got the best chance to overturn who we've got now," Stamas said.
After Florida, the GOP enters a quiet phase for most of February. It has only one televised debate, in Arizona in three weeks; Gingrich has depended on debates to fuel his campaign, and his latest surge followed two forceful performances in South Carolina.
Nevada's caucuses are up next, on Saturday; Romney won those caucuses in 2008, and the state has a strong Mormon presence, though Texas Rep. Ron Paul is well organized in the Silver State.
Although Florida awards 50 delegates Tuesday, winner take all, no candidate will be able to officially gather all 1,441 delegates required to be nominated until at least April.
The Romney campaign has always organized itself for the long haul. "We're entering a phase now where the question of whether a campaign is built for prime time will be tested," Romney consultant Kevin Madden said.
Gingrich has vowed to continue to fight to the GOP convention in Tampa. On Super Tuesday, March 6, 10 states will vote, including the Southern states of Tennessee, Georgia, and Oklahoma - perhaps the best upcoming chance for Gingrich, who is from Georgia.
"He can bury me for a very short amount of time with four or five or six times as much money," Gingrich said in an ABC interview Monday. "In the long run, the Republican Party is not going to nominate . . . a liberal Republican."
View two of the attack ads that have running in Florida on behalf of Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney via www.philly.
com/bloodmoney and www.
What's Coming Up
Forthcoming events in the GOP presidential nominating contest:
Tuesday: Florida primary
Saturday: Maine and Nevada caucuses
Feb. 7: Colorado and Minnesota caucuses and a nonbinding Missouri primary
Feb. 22: CNN/Arizona Republican Party debate, Mesa, Ariz.
Feb. 28: Arizona and Michigan primaries
See a complete election calendar via www.
Inquirer staff writer Melissa Dribben contributed to this article.