Reuters: Mitt Romney is back on track.Less than a week after a stinging setback in South Carolina, Romney moved ahead of rival Newt Gingrich again in Florida polls on Thursday and turned in his strongest debate performance yet in a seesawing Republican presidential race.
Three new polls showed Romney taking a solid 7- or 8-point lead in Florida hours before his confident and aggressive debate performance put Gingrich on the defensive repeatedly in their final showdown ahead of Tuesday’s state primary.
“This was his best debate exactly when he needed it. Romney won the debate and he may well have won the primary,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.
Romney, who saw his lead over Gingrich evaporate after a stinging 12-point defeat in South Carolina, also benefited on Thursday from a wave of new criticism of Gingrich from prominent conservative and party leaders.
It was the latest swing in momentum in a race that has seen many ebbs and flows. Gingrich earlier wiped out Romney’s lead in Florida polls after his South Carolina win, and the potential remains for more shifts in momentum.
But a Florida victory for Romney would put him in a strong position to capture the nomination, with the primary map tilting in his favor in February with contests in seven states where he has the potential advantage.
Next up on February 4 is Nevada, which has a big Mormon population and where Romney, who is Mormon, won with 51 percent of the vote during his failed 2008 presidential bid. On February 7 Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri hold contests. Gingrich did not make the ballot in Missouri.
Four states with February contests - Nevada, Maine, Colorado and Minnesota - use caucus systems, where strong campaign organizations can help rally voter turnout. That could give Romney, with his superior financial and staff resources, an advantage.
On February 28, Michigan and Arizona hold primaries. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, was raised in Michigan, where his father was a former governor and car executive.
“If Mitt Romney wins in Florida, he’ll be on cruise control all the way to Super Tuesday,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said. Nine states hold contests on “Super Tuesday,” on March 6.
“Florida is a make-or-break state for Gingrich because he needs to win to get his momentum back and restock his campaign coffers,” O’Connell said. “He is spending everything he’s got to compete with Romney in Florida.”