PANAMA CITY/ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Bolstered by positive poll numbers, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Saturday sought to vanquish rival Newt Gingrich in Florida with a biting new ad about ethics charges and a mocking tone about his debate complaints.
Just three days ahead of a pivotal primary race that could determine who has the momentum to win the Republican state-by-state nominating battle, the two men spent the day traveling around Florida in a final weekend search for undecided voters.
Romney, already confident after strong performances in two Florida debates, is gaining ground over his rival for the nomination to take on Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.
A Reuters/Ipsos online poll released on Saturday showed Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts and off-and-on Republican front-runner, with an 11 percentage point lead over Gingrich, up from 8 points a day earlier.
Romney drew support of 43 percent of likely voters in Florida’s January 31 primary and Gingrich 32 percent. That compared with a 41 percent to 33 percent showing in the online tracking poll on Friday.
Romney needs a victory on Tuesday to regain his footing after losing badly to Gingrich in the South Carolina primary last weekend.
Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, needs a Florida win to solidify the front-runner mantle he took on after his resounding victory in the third nominating contests.
“If we win Florida, I will be the nominee,” Gingrich declared at a golf facility in Port St. Lucie.
Romney has gained momentum in recent days, however, and the former private-equity executive used that and his financial muscle to draw up a closing argument that Gingrich’s behavior in Congress made him unfit to be the Republican Party’s leader.
In a simple ad titled “History Lesson” - a play on Gingrich’s background as a historian - Romney’s campaign showed footage of an NBC television anchor’s news report the day Democrats and Republicans found him guilty of ethics violations in 1997.
“Newt Gingrich, who came to power, after all, preaching a higher standard in American politics, a man who brought down another Speaker on ethics accusations, tonight he has on his own record the judgment of his peers, Democrat and Republican alike,” anchor Tom Brokaw says in the report, which makes up the entire ad.
Gingrich denies wrongdoing and his campaign emphasizes that 83 of 84 “politically motivated” ethics charges against him were found to be without merit and dropped.
The ad drew controversy from television network NBC, which asked the Romney team to remove the newscast material from the ad. Anchor Brokaw also voiced objections.
“I am extremely uncomfortable with the extended use of my personal image in this political ad. I do no want my role as a journalist compromised for political gain by any campaign,” he said in a statement.
Romney’s campaign said it was looking at the network’s request.
“We just received the letter. We are reviewing it, but we believe it falls under fair use,” said senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom.
Gingrich and Romney have sought to tear each other down in the run-up to the Florida election, fighting over who is best equipped to beat Obama.
Gingrich has boasted of carrying on the legacy of the late President Ronald Reagan, a hero to conservatives, while pushing for the anti-establishment support of the Tea Party.
“I can run with a history - not a theory, not a promise - that we can create jobs by unleashing the American people,” Gingrich told a pastel-clad crowd of golf fans at the PGA golf facility, criticizing Romney as not being a true conservative.
Over the course of the day Gingrich appealed to groups he hopes will propel him to victory in Florida, holding events with country club Republicans, Hispanics, and religious conservatives at a Baptist mega-church.
Don Brigham, 60, a golf pro from Port St. Lucie, said Gingrich’s comments there helped him make up his mind about whom to support.
“I was undecided, but I loved what I heard,” he said. “I was very impressed with his personality. It’s a two-man race on the Republican side. I was very impressed with his message. He pretty much spoke to my political beliefs.”
But Romney’s strong performances in this week’s debates - venues that have usually favored Gingrich - have resonated with more voters. That momentum fueled confidence in Romney, who mocked his rival for complaining about audience participation.
“We’ve had about 18 debates so far, and they’re getting more and more fun as time goes on,” Romney said at one campaign event.
“This last one Speaker Gingrich said he didn’t do so well because the audience was so loud. The one before he said he didn’t do so well because the audience was too quiet. This is like Goldilocks.”
Meanwhile former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum signaled he was not planning to leave the race anytime soon, despite lagging in polls. His campaign on Saturday announced the opening of a headquarters in Nevada, the next state to hold a nominating contest after Florida.
Santorum won the first contest in Iowa and Romney won the second in New Hampshire.
Santorum was well behind his rivals in the Reuters/Ipsos poll with 16 percent support, a slight tick up from 13 percent in Friday’s results. Texas Representative Ron Paul came in with 6 percent support, up from 5 percent the previous day.