GOP prepares for critical primary in diverse Florida voting blocs

Florida voters prepared to head to the polls Tuesday as Mitt Romney seeks to tighten his grip on the Republican presidential nomination.

Since Newt Gingrich's win in South Carolina 10 days ago, the GOP race has turned increasingly hostile, with candidates employing harsh rhetoric against one another.

Although Gingrich's win seemed to have reset the race, since then polls show Romney as a clear frontrunner in the Sunshine State.

In the latest Quinnipiac poll, Mitt Romney leads Newt Gingrich by a 43-29 percent margin among Republican likely voters in Florida. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum both bank 11 percent of the survey's respondents.

According to the survey released Monday, Romney leads Gingrich by 5 points among white evangelicals, takes the Tea Party vote by 5 points over his chief rival and wins self-described conservatives by 9 percentage points in the poll of 529 likely GOP voters. The margin of error is 4.2 percent.

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    Romney's lead "touches all the GOP bases," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "If this margin holds up tomorrow, it's hard to see where Gingrich goes from here."

    But that's not all. The American Research Group released its own poll Sunday, showing Romney beating Gingrich 43-32 percent, with Santorum at 11 percent and Paul at 8 percent. The poll also has Romney skewing the women's vote, taking a 22-point lead -- 49-27 percent -- over Gingrich. Both Romney and Gingrich score 37 percent of the vote among men in the survey conducted Jan. 27-28.

    But unwilling to signal defeat, Gingrich on Monday pointed to a poll from the Dixie Strategies/The News-Press/First Coast News released over the weekend that shows Gingrich leading Romney "by an eyelash" -- 35.46 to 35.08 percent. The poll was conducted last week using robocalls. The pollster, acknowledging the difference from other polls that have Romney on average 8 or 9 points up, argues that the poll may be more accurate because its sample size of 2,567 likely voters is a much larger than other polls and its 1.93 percent margin of error is much smaller.

    With the presidential primary campaigns and their surrogates spending millions of dollars on advertising in the race, the candidates are trying to appeal to demographic blocs nearly as numerous as the state's 10 media markets -- seniors, Jews, Latinos, women.

    All will likely play a stark role in Tuesday's voting , as Florida is often viewed as a state truly representative of the American complexion.

    It's that kind of outlier that has the candidates tweaking the demographic groups, especially seniors. A third of Florida voters are over age 65, and how they break will have a big impact on the campaigns (moreso than Paul's big lead among the smaller, university-bound youth vote).

    The older vote also could explain Gingrich's heavy emphasis on Ronald Reagan in recent debates -- the quintessential Republican outsider who many of Tuesday's voters likely helped elect in 1980 and 1984.

    Acknowledging that population segment, both Gingrich and Romney visited The Villages retirement community, a massive area one hour north of Orlando in the middle of the state.

    An eyeball estimate of crowds attending a Gingrich rally there Sunday put attendance at about 3,000, including a woman in a wheelchair who paused for a photo with Gingrich while carrying a sign that read, "I'm 90 and I'm with Newt."

    Al Butler, Sumter County Republican Party chairman, said the issues concerning seniors this year aren't so much Medicare and Social Security, per se, but "pocketbook issues" on the economy as a whole and the direction of the country.

    Many senior Republicans are "really enamored of Gingrich and his ideas and they know he's a real conservative," he said. But polling shows electability is a key factor for Romney's strong polling among that demographic.

    "Romney appears to be ahead by double-digits. We had a poll last week, Thursday after the debate, that showed him to have a 16-point lead in The Villages. Now how reflective of that the whole county is, I don't know," Butler said.

    As for Hispanics, three of the most influential Cuban-American House lawmakers from the state have endorsed Romney, and insulated him from attacks on his immigration policy. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, an oft-named vice presidential possibility who has declined to endorse a candidate, has been among those to defend Romney's stance.

    Bettina Inclan, director of Hispanic outreach for the Republican National Committee, said Latinos are very diverse, even among communities in southern, central and northern Florida. That bares out in the latest Public Policy Polling survey out Sunday, which shows Gingrich taking a wide lead, 46-20 percent. among the 5 percent of the respondents who identified themselves as Cubans. Romney was winning Hispanic non-Cubans, 36-31 percent. They comprised 7 percent of the poll.

    As for the Jewish population in Florida, on Monday, Gingrich pointed out that Romney unfairly treated religious groups in his health care reform, going so far as to nix extra funding for costly Kosher meals at nursing homes. The former House speaker has pledged that on his first day in office, he would sign an executive order to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a meaningful issue for conservative Jews.

    In response, Romney aides note that the funds for Kosher meals were later restored, and he has supported several policies popular in the Jewish community, including promising to make his first trip as president to Israel and proposing to reduce assistance to the Palestinians if leading political group Fatah forms a unity government with the terror organization Hamas, which has a powerful political wing in the Palestinian territories.