Polls opened earlier today in Florida, where Mitt Romney was pushing for a big win over Newt Gingrich in the race to pick a Republican challenger to President Barack Obama in November.
Romney is heavily favoured in the winner-take-all primary, the final and
possibly pivotal contest in a high-stakes month in which the former
Massachusetts governor has claimed one win and two second-place
finishes. On Monday, he campaigned so optimistically that he broke into
Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, dismissed suggestions that he could be hobbled by a significant loss in Florida, telling reporters the race wouldn't be decided until June or July — "unless Romney drops out earlier."
Two other candidates — Rick Santorum and Ron Paul — have ceded Florida in favour of smaller, less expensive contests.
Romney has been the front-runner for much of the race, but he suffered a stunning loss to Gingrich in the 21st January South Carolina primary and has been more aggressive in debates and speeches ever since.
"With a turnout like this, I'm beginning to feel we might win tomorrow," the newly upbeat Romney told a crowd Monday.
Romney and his allies have poured more than $14 million into Florida television advertising primarily to attack Gingrich, who has struggled to compete with Romney's fundraising ability, staffing and network of high-profile supporters. Gingrich and his allies spent roughly $3 million on Florida advertising. Gingrich also faltered in the Florida debates.
The last Florida polls close at 8 pm EST (0100 GMT). Republican officials were anticipating a big turnout, more than 2 million voters, up from a record 1.9 million in the Republican primary in 2008.
A Romney win on Tuesday is unlikely to end Gingrich's candidacy in a Republican contest that has turned increasingly hostile. But Romney would have the clear momentum as the race enters a period of lower-profile contests, some in states friendly to his more moderate views.
Gingrich's populist, sharp-tongued attacks on Obama and media "elites" have helped him emerge as Romney's chief rival, but Romney has the support of much of the Republican establishment. Romney supporters have tried to cast Gingrich as too erratic to be effective.
Romney is generally considered the Republicans' strongest candidate to face Obama, whose re-election prospects have been hurt by the slow U.S. economic recovery. Florida has been especially hard hit, with nearly 10 percent unemployment and some of the nation's highest foreclosure rates.
But Romney has had difficulty winning over many Republicans who question his conservative credentials given his shifting views on abortion, gay rights and gun control, as well as the similarities between a Massachusetts health insurance plan he backed as governor and Obama's national plan, which is widely despised by Republicans.
Romney has renewed attacks on Gingrich as an untrustworthy Washington influence peddler, claiming that Gingrich's ties to federally backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac, despised by conservatives, have hurt the former speaker in a state wracked by the foreclosure crisis.
After Florida, the pace quickens with seven elections in February, which kicks off with Nevada's caucuses Saturday. That will be followed by contests next week in Colorado, Minnesota and Maine as well as a non-binding primary in Missouri. A 17-day break will be capped by primaries in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28.
The race for delegates is still early. A candidate needs to collect 1,144 delegates to win. Coming into Florida, Romney had 37 delegates to Gingrich's 26.