Newt Gingrich’s momentum in the Republican presidential race, boosted by a victory in South Carolina, seems to be waning as two new opinion polls show him falling behind rival Mitt Romney, who was seen as the winner of the final debate before the Florida primary.
The White House contenders appealed to Florida's large Hispanic vote, many of them Cubans, with appearances at the Hispanic Leadership Network, where Romney received an unusually warm reception and the reaction to Gingrich was more sedate.
Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, also held a rally with the Republican Jewish Coalition, trying to court another crucial section of Florida voters.
Recovering after losing the South Carolina primary to Gingrich, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, had an eight-percentage point lead over him in a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Friday. A Quinnipiac University poll gave him a nine-percentage point edge.
The Reuters/Ipsos online poll gave Romney 41 per cent and Gingrich 33 per cent ahead of Saturday's contest, a margin similar to three polls released on Thursday that all showed Romney taking control of the battle in Florida.
Romney reportedly enjoys a financial and organisational advantage over Gingrich in Florida.
In the final campaign debate before the January 31 primary, the rivals clashed over immigration, space policy and taxes. Gingrich cast Romney as the most anti-immigrant candidate in the event in Jacksonville, Florida, on Thursday.
Romney responded by attacking Gingrich for "over-the-top" personal attacks.
"The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive ... it's simply the kind of over the top rhetoric that's characterised American politics too long," Romney said to audience applause.
"I think you should apologise for it and recognise that having differences of opinions does not justify labelling people with highly charged epithets."
Gingrich criticised Romney's proposal of "self-deportation" of illegal aliens, saying: "I don't think grandmothers and grandfathers will self-deport."
But Romney, who said his father was born in Mexico and his father-in-law in Wales, replied: "I'm not going to find grandmothers and deport them."
A massive 11 million illegal immigrants are said to live in the shadows in the US, and Florida, with its large Hispanic population, may change the fortune of candidates, vying to get Republican nomination to face Barack Obama in November.
When Ron Paul, a Texas congressman, was asked to comment on the issue, he said some of the measures proposed by his rivals were difficult to implement, and called for focusing on the US-Mexico border instead of on the Middle East.
Romney and Gingrich also clashed over their earnings from mortgage firms Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Gingrich said Romney had profited from home foreclosures that have hurt Florida, and asked how much of Romney's personal fortune came from those foreclosures.
Romney defended the investments, saying it was "blind trust" that controlled his finances and that Gingrich himself owned mutual funds that also invested in the quasi-government lenders.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies