A two-man fight for Florida is emerging ahead of the state's final Republican presidential debate, with Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich pounding each other over personal and professional vulnerabilities.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul will take their places on the stage for Thursday night's debate but have their sights set elsewhere and have largely stayed away from the Romney-Gingrich drama.
Public opinion polls had Romney and Gingrich in a tight race. The winner of Tuesday's primary will score something no one has yet claimed in a tumultuous primary season: a second victory. The first three nominating contest have gone to three different candidates; only Paul has not topped a primary or caucus vote.
Sharp exchanges Wednesday highlighted the stakes in the battle to determine President Barack Obama's fall challenger. Gingrich, a former House speaker, tried to paint Romney as out-of-touch by noting his Swiss bank account and another in the Cayman Islands. Romney, a businessman-turned-politician, couldn't escape questions about his wealth from others.
At a forum at the Spanish-language Univision Network, Romney was asked point-blank how much money he had.
"Well, it's _ it's between a $150 and about $200 and some odd million," he responded after trying to turn the question back on the forum's moderator. "I think that's what the estimates are, and _ and, by the way, I didn't inherit that."
Gingrich faced uncomfortable questions of his own during his turn at Univision. He dismissed suggestions that he lacked standing in the mid-1990s to criticize President Bill Clinton's infidelity when he was carrying on an affair of his own, arguing that Clinton had lied under oath and that was the real issue in the impeachment of the president.
The hits for both Romney and Gingrich were coming from many directions.
The "super" political action committees backing the two leading GOP candidates have spent more than $10 million combined on ads so far in Florida, far more than their respective campaigns. The Romney-leaning Restore Our Future has spent $8.8 million in ads as of late Tuesday, bringing the total of ads supporting Romney in the state to $14 million, not counting the cash already spent on radio and Internet advertising.
As of late Tuesday, the Gingrich-backing Winning Our Future had booked $1.8 million in television ads in Florida, a check made possible by a new donation from Miriam Adelson. She and her husband, Sheldon, this month gave $5 million apiece to the group, which supports Gingrich but legally must remain independent.
Elected officials backing Romney, including 2008 GOP nominee John McCain, sought to keep the focus on Gingrich's turbulent time in Congress and lucrative consulting work after he left. Gingrich, whose crowds consistently reached into the thousands, cast the stepped-up critiques as a sign of his momentum.
"What you have right now is the entire establishment in panic mode running around saying whatever comes into their mind next," Gingrich told reporters. He amplified the sentiment a few minutes later, saying a Gingrich win in Florida would allow the news media to watch "distinguished people melt down at the thought that we would actually change Washington and they would have to learn new games."
Obama was amid a campaign-style swing of his own, pressing a populist theme of tax fairness. Republicans said Obama's call was little more than code for tax increases and charged those would hinder the economic recovery.
Back in Florida, Santorum was recognizing that he stood almost no chance to win the primary. Santorum and his advisers didn't plan any advertising in Florida and instead were emphasizing raising money and calling potential supporters in upcoming primary states. He all but gave up trying to woo a network of pastors and was scaling back his events in the state.
Chuck Laudner, an influential adviser who helped Santorum score an upset victory in the Iowa caucuses, was headed back to the Midwest to start piecing together coalitions in Missouri and Minnesota. Both states have media markets that overlap with Iowa, where Santorum proved to be the big story.
Paul has been virtually absent from Florida except for appearances built around the two debates. He was concentrating instead on caucus states where his loyal backers can carry a louder voice.
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott, David Espo and Kasie Hunt contributed to this report from Florida. Jack Gillum contributed from Washington.