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The Florida race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich has been brutal and ugly at times, but it has left Romney a happy man. As Florida voters head to the polls today, Romney is confident he'll get a decisive win and reclaim his front-runner status.
We're about to hear from both campaigns, but let's start with NPR's Ari Shapiro, who's been traveling with Romney's campaign across Florida. He reports that on the last full day of campaigning, the former Massachusetts governor seemed downright jovial.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you...
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Mitt Romney was in a celebratory mood as his charter plane flew from Jacksonville to Tampa. With Florida election results still a day away, a reporter's 34th birthday seemed as good a reason to celebrate as any.
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MITT ROMNEY: This is the fifth anniversary of her 29th birthday.
SHAPIRO: He seemed downright impish as he retreated to the front of the plane, only to return throwing snack bags of potato chips at the press corps.
ROMNEY: Oh, Cheetos. I like Cheetos.
SHAPIRO: Romney has reasons to be happy. When he came to Florida last week after a solid thumping in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich seemed to be a serious threat to his candidacy. Now, Romney's lead in polls has been growing and growing. He said to reporters on the plane: It feels good today.
ROMNEY: 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.
SHAPIRO: Some of that has to do with Romney's strategy of relentless attacks on Gingrich. He has pummeled the former House speaker in debates, rallies and TV ads. This ad has been in heavy rotation, using an excerpt of an old Tom Brokaw newscast to recount the time House Republicans turned on Gingrich.
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SHAPIRO: NBC asked the campaign to stop using it, but the Romney folks refused.
A state like Florida is just too big to shake hands with everyone. Retail politics doesn't work here the way it does in Iowa and New Hampshire, so Romney's financial edge has given him a big advantage in the advertising race.
On the plane, Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom said all's fair. Gingrich won South Carolina in part by using attack ads against Romney.
ERIC FEHRNSTROM: Our reaction to that is not to complain or to cry about it. But we're not going to sit still, either. We're going to fight back, and that's what we did here in Florida.
SHAPIRO: Throughout all of this, the criticism of President Obama has never stopped. Fehrnstrom called that the elevator music in this campaign. But the Republican circular firing squad is the theme that has dominated Florida. Many of Romney's attacks on Gingrich have focused on the theme of housing. As Romney pointed out at a Jacksonville rally, one quarter of the foreclosed homes in America are here in Florida.
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SHAPIRO: Someone in the crowd shouted: Send him to the moon - referring to Gingrich's proposal to establish a moon colony.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN SPEECH) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.