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Associated Press/Photo by Charles Dharapak

Romney's revival

Politics | After a punishing loss in South Carolina to Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney is poised to take Florida

Just one week ago it looked like Newt Gingrich was poised to continue the momentum he gained from his victory in the South Carolina primary and make life difficult for Mitt Romney in Florida.

But one week is a long time in the world of presidential politics.

Buoyed by two surprisingly strong Florida debate performances, the state's more diverse electorate, and campaign cash that no other candidate can match, Romney has surged to a comfortable double-digit lead in most polls heading into Tuesday's Florida primary.

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"It feels good at this point," said Romney, who is aiming to beat former Gingrich by a margin at least as big as the former House speaker's 12-point South Carolina win. "In South Carolina, the crowds were good, but you could sense that it wasn't going our way. Here, the crowds are good, and you can sense it's coming our way. It's getting better and better every day."

During campaign stops Monday, Romney couldn't resist taking multiple jabs at Gingrich: "Send him to the moon," the former Massachusetts governor shouted to supporters, alluding to Gingrich's recent talk in support of a moon mission.

"You know, I know the speaker's not very happy, Speaker Gingrich, he's not feeling very excited these days," Romney continued. "I know, it's sad; he's been flailing around a bit trying to go after me for one thing or the other. You just watch, and you shake your head."

For his part, Gingrich spent the final hours of the Florida campaign trying to rally his troops with impassioned speeches about religion under attack.

"I think we need to have a government that respects our religions," Gingrich said Monday. "I'm a little bit tired of being lectured on respecting every other religion on the planet. I want them to respect our religion."

Gingrich called the Obama administration's push to require Catholic organizations to cover birth control in their healthcare plans a "fundamental assault on the right of the freedom of religion." Gingrich vowed to repeal every Obama "attack on religion."

Perhaps as a way to subtly highlight his difference from Romney's Mormon faith, Gingrich, who is Catholic, on Monday continued his emphasis on courting the religious vote. Last week he conducted a lengthy conference call with Christian leaders from across the nation.

"I think we are in a war against religion,'' Gingrich said during that call. "I think the elites are bigoted secularists. I think we have judges who are dictatorial. I think we have constant pressure against religious expression."

During that call he said he first learned about God through a grandmother when he was four years old. He also talked about how he sang in a Lutheran choir as a child in Harrisburg, Pa., and that he was baptized in the Baptist church as a graduate student at Tulane University.

He also alluded to his infidelities to his first and second wives. Gingrich became Catholic after attending services at the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C., with Callista, the woman who became his third wife. They began an affair while Gingrich was still married to his second wife and Callista was a congressional staff member.

"There were parts of my life that were not appropriate and I've had to ask God's forgiveness and I've had to seek reconciliation with God," Gingrich said.

Meanwhile, back on the Florida campaign trail, Gingrich has pressured conservative rival Rick Santorum to get out of the race.

"My prediction is that the conservative vote will be dramatically bigger than Gov. Romney's, but it'll be split," Gingrich said Tuesday morning about Florida's results during an appearance on Fox News. "So we've got to find a way to consolidate conservatives, and I'm clearly the frontrunner among conservatives, and hopefully over the next couple of weeks we'll be able to consolidate the conservative vote."

But Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who is trailing badly in Florida and has begun to focus on other states, rejected the suggestion that he should cease his campaign.

"My message is everybody should run," he said Tuesday morning also during an appearance on Fox News. "I don't think people should be telling other folks to get out of the race and get out of my way. You don't ask someone to quit just because you think you're the better candidate."

The other remaining GOP candidate, Ron Paul, has not actively campaigned in the days leading up to the Florida primary, choosing to concentrate on other states.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is WORLD's Washington Bureau chief. As a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he was embedded with a National Guard unit in Iraq. He also once worked in the press office of Sen. Lamar Alexander.

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