2012 ELECTION

Florida primary day begins

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(AP, ABC7) - All eyes are on the sunshine state after the first three primaries resulted in three different winners. Florida hosts its pivotal primary Tuesday as Mitt Romney seeks to tighten his grip on the Republican presidential nomination.

Polls are set to open at 7 a.m. across Florida. (Photo: Jay Westcott)

Newt Gingrich reset the race by scoring an overwhelming victory in South Carolina. But in the 10 days since, the GOP contest has turned increasingly hostile. And the polls have swung decidedly in Romney's direction.

The former Massachusetts governor enters the day as the heavy favorite in the winner-take-all primary, the final contest in a month of high-stakes elections in which Romney claimed one win and two second-place finishes so far.

The path to the Republican nomination - and the right to face President Barack Obama this fall - shifts to a series of lower-profile contests in February.

The polls opened at 7 a.m. across Florida, where Romney offered an increasingly optimistic tone while campaigning in recent days.

"With a turnout like this, I'm beginning to feel we might win tomorrow," an upbeat Romney told a crowd of several hundred at a stop in Dunedin on Monday.

Romney told reporters he's learned his lesson in politics.

"If we're successful here, it'll be pretty clear that when attacked, you have to respond," Romney said. "And you can't let charges go unanswered."

Gingrich acknowledged his momentum had been checked but promised not to back down.

"He can bury me for a very short amount of time with four or five or six times as much money," Gingrich said in a television interview. "In the long run, the Republican Party is not going to nominate ... a liberal Republican."

Romney's campaign canceled a Tuesday morning rally, but scheduled a night celebration at the Tampa Convention Center.

Gingrich will make a series of public appearances - including visits to two polling stations and a stop at the Polk County headquarters - before gathering with supporters for a primary night party in Orlando.

The last polls close at 8 p.m. The other two candidates in the race will not be in Florida on Tuesday.

Both Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have ceded Florida's primary to Romney and Gingrich in favor of smaller, less expensive contests.

They will spend the day campaigning across Colorado and Nevada. 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. "We are pitting people power versus money power," Gingrich said Monday as he tried to rally his shrinking base of support.

GOP officials in Florida were anticipating a big turnout, more than 2 million voters, up from a record 1.9 million in the Republican primary in 2008.

More than 605,000 Floridians had already voted as of Monday, either by visiting early voting stations or by mailing in absentee ballots, ahead of the total combined early vote in the GOP primary four years ago.

At the tiny coastal town of Dunedin, voters at the First Presbyterian Church polling station cited the economy and ethics as the issues that matter most.

Dunedin resident Chelsea Eckhofs said the Romney ads that cast Gingrich as unethical won their vote.

"In Congress, it's shady," Eckhofs said. "But you should at least be kind of ethical."

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