Backers cheer Newt Gingrich at a campaign stop in Jacksonville, Fla., on… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
JACKSONVILLE, FLA., AND TAMPA, FLA. — Starting at dawn and pushing deep into the night, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich stormed Florida on Monday in a final blitz of sharply negative campaigning, trading accusations on the eve of the state's crucial Republican presidential primary.
Romney, who appears headed for victory, reprised attacks on Gingrich's ethics and lucrative consulting work for the mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
Asked about Gingrich's assertion he planned to campaign -- win or lose -- up to the August GOP convention in Tampa, Romney scoffed. "That's usually an indication that you think you're going to lose," he told reporters as he flew from Jacksonville to St. Petersburg.
"I'm hopeful to get the delegates I need and be at the convention with the number that's needed to be the nominee," Romney said. "Everybody has the right to stay as long as they think they can get the delegates that they need."
Gingrich, who rode into Florida on a burst of momentum after his big South Carolina primary win, hoped to regain some of the spark his candidacy has lost over the last week.
He attacked Romney as a liberal disguising himself as a conservative and warned Republicans that nominating the former Massachusetts governor would ensure another four years of President Obama. "Every time we nominate a moderate, we lose," Gingrich told the modest crowd at a Jacksonville hotel.
Campaigning alongside Ronald Reagan's son Michael, Gingrich said his endorsement was proof that he was the political heir to the late president, who is deeply beloved in Republican circles.
"I figured if his son was willing to campaign with me, for any person with an open mind, that should settle that issue totally once and for all," the former House speaker said.
The Florida primary promises to be the most consequential of the four held so far, either stamping Romney as an overwhelming front-runner -- making it exceedingly unlikely he can be overtaken -- or resuscitating Gingrich and turning the Republican nominating contest into a fight that could last weeks, if not many months.
From Florida, the race heads to Nevada for a caucus Saturday, and then enters a relative lull. Although there will be contests on Feb. 7 in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, the outcome will not bind delegates sent to the GOP nominating convention.
Gingrich failed to qualify for the Missouri ballot, and Romney is a heavy favorite in the next big-state primary, Michigan, where his father served as governor.
That makes Arizona, which votes Feb. 28 along with Michigan, the next big battleground.
Striving to put the contest away, Romney endured a final marathon campaign day in Florida, starting with a dawn appearance from Jacksonville on NBC's "Today" show. He needled Gingrich for failing for draw more endorsements from his former House colleagues, saying that he worked with "hundreds of people" but is being backed by only a few.
Appearing a short time later in Jacksonville, Romney again pointed to Gingrich's ethics troubles, which resulted in a bipartisan reprimand from his peers and a $300,000 fine, and his work for Freddie Mac, which Romney blamed for the housing crisis that flattened Florida's economy.
"People actually saw him in those debates," Romney said of the candidates' two face-to-face Florida meetings, "and listened to his background and learned, for instance, that he was paid $1.6 million to be a lobbyist for Freddie Mac, and they said that's not what we want in the White House."
The Romney campaign let up on Gingrich after the ex-speaker's poor finish in Iowa, the opening Republican contest, and strategists made clear there would be no repeat.
"You're not going to see Mitt Romney go into cruise control after Florida," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a longtime Romney advisor, who compared Gingrich to a volcano: "You don't know what he's going to be spewing next."
Gingrich, who insisted the race was turning his way, flew from one of end of the Florida Panhandle to the other, dipped south to Fort Myers and made two stops in the swing part of the state, along the east-west I-4 corridor.
He started in Jacksonville, appearing alongside Reagan, who cited Gingrich's record in Congress as the reason for his support. "I think I owe it to him because of what he's done for the Republican Party," Reagan said, highlighting Gingrich's role in the 1994 GOP takeover of the House.
"No one else running for office has done that, but he did it."
At an airport rally in Tampa, Gingrich opened a new front against Romney, accusing him of waging a war on religion -- a charge he has repeatedly leveled against Obama.
"Romney imposed on Catholic hospitals in Massachusetts a position against their conscience," Gingrich said, suggesting that religious organizations, under some circumstances, were forced to provide reproductive care that conflicts with their faith. He also accused Romney of cutting off kosher meals for Jewish seniors as a way to trim Medicaid costs.
In Fort Myers, Gingrich sought to counter Romney's relentless negative TV ad campaign against him, saying Romney had no vision other than spending millions to destroy his adversary.
"What a pathetic situation to be running for the president of the United States with nothing positive to say for yourself and nothing available, a big idea, a big vision, a big future," Gingrich told more than 400 people corralled in a sunny airport parking lot.
The two other candidates running, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, have given up on Florida, leaving the state after the final debate Thursday night.
Both are setting their sights on contests down the road, with Paul hoping his small but highly motivated following can bring a victory in the organizationally intensive Nevada caucuses.
Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak in Tampa and John Hoeffel in Fort Myers, Fla., contributed to this report.