(Adds canceled Santorum events in 11th paragraph. For more campaign news, see ELECT.)
Jan. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are delivering closing arguments at rallies around Florida, with paid TV ads and on today’s morning talk shows in what may be the final chance to grab momentum before the state’s Jan. 31 Republican presidential primary.
The two have crossed the state trading attacks: Gingrich criticized Romney as a moderate while announcing an endorsement from former candidate Herman Cain, a Tea Party favorite. Romney teased Gingrich for being thin-skinned and aired a new TV ad highlighting a 1997 House vote reprimanding the former House speaker.
“We ran a moderate in 1996 and we lost. We ran a moderate in 2008 and we lost,” Gingrich said during a campaign stop at PGA Village in Port St. Lucie. “The only way to defeat Barack Obama is to run a solid conservative who can make the case for our values, our belief, our programs.”
With two full days of campaigning to go, hundreds of thousands of Florida Republicans already have cast their ballots.
More than 460,000 votes were cast through the mail and at early voting sites in Florida through Jan. 26, the most recent numbers available from the Republican Party of Florida.
That’s more than the total number of votes in Iowa and New Hampshire primaries and nearly as many as the South Carolina contest. It also nears the record 543,000 Republican ballots cast in the mail or at early voting sites during Florida’s 2008 presidential primary, which included a property tax cut on the same ballot.
Mail ballots were first delivered to Florida Republican homes more than three weeks ago, when Romney, 64, had an advantage in public polls. Early voting sites, which closed Jan. 27, opened Jan. 20, the day Gingrich, 68, won a 12-point victory in South Carolina’s contest.
Absentee ballot returns and attendance at early voting sites both opened at a record pace then slowed in recent days, said state party spokesman Brian Hughes.
“It’s almost like people are deciding to wait and see,” Hughes said.
A poll of 580 likely Republican primary voters released Jan. 27 by Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University showed Romney pulling away from Gingrich, 38 percent to 29 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points. A Quinnipiac poll released Jan. 25 put Romney only two points in the lead.
As the two fanned out across the state, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum was at home in Pennsylvania, where his daughter Isabella’s admission to a hospital in Philadelphia forced the cancellation of his Sunday morning events, while U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas isn’t campaigning in Florida. Santorum’s campaign said in a statement he would “resume the campaign schedule as soon as possible.”
Romney aired a new TV ad featuring former NBC News Anchor Tom Brokaw. The 30-second spot is Brokaw opening his Jan. 21, 1997 newscast detailing the House vote reprimanding Gingrich, and the $300,000 in fees his colleagues imposed on him to cover the expenses of the ethics investigation.
Gingrich was formally reprimanded for providing false information to a congressional panel investigating whether he used tax-exempt charitable contributions for political purposes in violation of federal law.
The Romney campaign bought more than $1 million worth of advertising time to run it, according to a person familiar with the purchase who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The NBC News legal department wrote a letter to Romney’s campaign asking for the removal of all NBC News material from their political ads. Brokaw said in a statement yesterday that he is “extremely uncomfortable with the extended use of my personal image in this political ad” and that he didn’t want his “role as a journalist compromised for political gain by any campaign.”
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond joked about the controversy. “Finally! A crack in the establishment,” he wrote in an e-mail.
--With assistance from Alan Bjerga in Washington. Editors: Paul Tighe, Ann Hughey.
To contact the reporters on this story: Michael C. Bender in West Palm Beach at firstname.lastname@example.org; Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Pensacola at email@example.com
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