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Florida holds its primary the day after tomorrow. If Mitt Romney wins, it could be a decisive victory for the former Massachusetts governor's bid for the nomination. But if Newt Gingrich comes out on top there will likely be a long battle ahead. Both men have a lot at stake in Tuesday's vote, which explains all the strong attacks they hurled at one another on the campaign trail and in TV spots across Florida yesterday.
NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports from Orlando.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Month after month, Mitt Romney has campaigned with his eye fixed on one target: President Obama. But then came last weekend's loss to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina; it brought with it a new approach by Romney. He's going directly after Gingrich. This is from yesterday in Panama City.
MITT ROMNEY: Some of us remember, oh yeah, the Contract with America. That was a good thing. We took over the House - that was great news. What happened four years latter? Well, he was fined for ethics violations. He ultimately had to resign in disgrace.
GONYEA: At that same event, Romney had help from 2008 GOP nominee Senator John McCain. He went after Gingrich for attacking Romney's record at Bain Capital.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I do not understand. Do you? Why anyone would attack a person who is successful in business, in the free enterprise system.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MCCAIN: That is a sign of desperation.
GONYEA: But such attacks where matched line for line by Gingrich. This is how he started his day in Port St. Lucie on Saturday
NEWT GINGRICH: All I'll say about Governor Romney is while he was governor he raised taxes, he imposed RomneyCare, the state of Massachusetts was third from the bottom in job creation; not a particularly strong based to debate jobs with Obama.
GONYEA: Actually, that was far from the only thing Gingrich had to say about his opponent. Take this from a session with reporters right after that speech.
GINGRICH: Now, there's no practical way in a civil debate to deal with somebody who is that willing to say something that's just totally dishonest.
GONYEA: Florida is the biggest state so far to hold a 2012 presidential vote. It has many big cities and media markets, so the campaigns can't do it all with stump speeches and town halls. TV ads are mandatory to reach all the voters. And this weekend, sharply-worded messages airing on local Florida TV stations contained even sharper versions of what was heard on the stump.
First from Gingrich, this ad opens with a clip from the unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Romney was one of those Huckabee was running against fours years ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADS)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: If a man's dishonest to obtain a job, he'll be dishonest on the job.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What kind of man would mislead distort and deceive just to win an election? This man would, Mitt Romney. Romney said...
GONYEA: Then there's this Romney campaign ad airing this weekend. It features the image and voice of former NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw, reading a story about Gingrich on the "Nightly News" in 1997.
(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)
TOM BROKAW: Good evening. Newt Gingrich, who came to power after all preaching a higher standard in American politics; a man who brought down another speaker on ethics accusations, tonight he has on his own record the judgment of his peers, Democrat and Republican alike. By an overwhelming vote, they found him guilty of ethics violations...
GONYEA: For the record, NBC News asked the Romney campaign to take down the ad featuring Brokaw, while Huckabee asked the Gingrich campaign to pull the ad with archival footage of him.
Other than debates, Gingrich and Romney have not had face-to-face encounters on the trail. But yesterday in Florida, two of their surrogates did clash in person. This was in the back of the crowd after a Gingrich event. A Romney supporter, Florida Congressman Connie Mack, showed up to talk to reporters. He was confronted by Gingrich campaign spokesperson RC Hammond.
REPRESENTATIVE CONNIE MACK: I'm just asking you, you came over here but I don't...
RC HAMMOND: No, peddling would be what...
MACK: No, peddling is what Newt did when he was paid $1.6 million. He hasn't answered the question. Why was he hired by the lobbyist? Why was he hired by the lead lobbyist? Why was he hired as a lead lobbyist?
HAMMOND: Your side registered as a lobbyist.
MACK: You should answer that question, it might help the campaign.
HAMMOND: I am answered that question...
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)
GONYEA: In that moment, the race for the republican Presidential nomination resembled a food fight more than anything else.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.