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SARASOTA, Fla. — Newt Gingrich has staked his presidential bid on the idea that he's best positioned to defeat President Barack Obama. Yet even some supporters seem to be struggling to buy that claim, an indication that efforts by chief rival Mitt Romney to undercut him may be working.
"Beating Obama is more important than everything else," Patrick Roehl, a 51-year-old computer software engineer, said at a Gingrich rally inside a Sarasota airport hangar this past week. "Can Newt win? I'm not sure. He's got a lot of high negatives. The elections are won and lost in the middle. I'm not sure he appeals to the middle."
John Grainger, a 44-year-old assistant golf pro, doesn't like Romney. But he's having trouble shaking skepticism about Gingrich.
"I want to be a Newt supporter," he said. "This guy's going to have the guts to stand up and speak his piece — no holds barred." But Grainger said he wasn't quite ready to back the former House speaker.
Interviews with more than a dozen Republican voters at Gingrich's overflowing rallies ahead of Tuesday's primary suggest that many Florida voters love his brash style as they look for someone to take it to Obama. But these voters also have lingering doubts about whether Gingrich really is Obama's most serious threat.
Romney and his allies are working to stoke those doubts, and the GOP's establishment wing has started to help the former Massachusetts governor try to make that case.
Romney and his backers are highlighting what they consider Gingrich's liabilities — consulting contracts and ethics investigations among them. They're suggesting that more baggage could emerge in the fall in the general election.
"In the case of the speaker, he's got some records which could represent an October surprise," Romney said, referring to Gingrich's consulting work and ethics allegations when he was in the House. "We could see an October surprise a day from Newt Gingrich."
An outside group dedicated to helping Romney has spent almost $9 million on Florida television advertising, including a massive $4 million investment this week alone, to make the case even more explicitly.
"Newt Gingrich's tough talk sounds good, but Newt has tons of baggage. How will he ever beat Obama?" says the new ad from the so-called super PAC, Restore Our Future.
Gingrich is not letting such criticism go unanswered. He's telling everyone that he alone can defeat Obama. He points to his 12 percentage point victory last weekend in the South Carolina primary as proof.
Exit polling there showed that 51 percent of Republican voters said that Gingrich was better suited to defeat the Democratic president.
"Their highest value was beating Obama," Gingrich told evangelical voters this past week. "And if they thought Romney was the only person who could beat Obama, then they would swallow a lie. But the minute they thought there were two people who could beat Obama, they suddenly turned and said, Well, you know, maybe we should be for Newt."
Polls suggest that Gingrich could defeat Romney in Florida, a surge fueled partly by growing support from the tea party movement and continued anti-Romney sentiment.
"He's a fighter. Mitt, I think, is too wishy-washy," said Dominique Boscia, a 43-year-old unemployed woman from Lakewood Ranch. "I like feisty people. I like people who have spunk."
For months, Gingrich has used aggressive debate performances to fuel his underdog candidacy. He has thrilled conservatives by promising to take the fight directly to Obama in a series of free-form debates modeled after the 1858 meetings between Illinois Senate candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas.
Should Obama refuse, Gingrich says he'll follow the president until he agrees.
That gets good applause lines at rallies. But a closer look at polling suggests that a debate beat down doesn't necessarily mean Gingrich can beat the president in an election that will include independents and Democrats.
Gingrich struggled among independents in a recent Washington Post-ABC News national poll, in which 53 percent gave him unfavorable marks and just 22 percent had a favorable opinion of the former House speaker. While Romney has typically polled better among independents, the poll conducted between Jan. 18 and 22 found virtually no difference: 51 percent of independents viewed him unfavorably, compared with 23 with favorable views.
But when all Florida voters, including independents and Democrats, are asked to weigh in, Romney appears to have a strong advantage over Gingrich, according to a poll conducted by Suffolk University-WSVN-TV Miami.
Romney would defeat Obama here 47 percent to 42 percent; Gingrich would lose, earning just 40 percent to Obama's 49 percent of likely Florida general election voters.