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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney bounded onto the small stage inside an assembly room for spacecraft payloads Friday and acknowledged the cheers of supporters before launching into criticism of his opponent -- President Obama.
Even though he is only days away from going head to head with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the winner-take-all Florida primary -- with 50 convention delegates at stake in Tuesday's vote -- Mr. Romney is looking farther down the road.
"How about that debate last night? Wasn't that terrific?" he asked the estimated 400 people gathered at Astrotech Corp. near the Kennedy Space Center. "I've had the chance to be in a lot of debates, and that one was fun."
The Thursday night debate on the campus of the University of North Florida in Jacksonville was widely seen as Mr. Gingrich's last opportunity to convince Floridians that he is more suited to the presidency than the former Massachusetts governor is.
But the forum, which included former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, failed to produce a clear winner.
The two front-runners traded criticisms, but unlike the South Carolina debates -- where Mr. Gingrich's confrontational spirit connected with voters -- his support in the Sunshine State appears to have leveled off.
Polls show Mr. Romney ahead by several percentage points.
A new Quinnipiac poll, conducted Jan. 19-26, shows Mr. Romney leading Mr. Gingrich by 38 percent to 29 percent among likely GOP voters in Florida.
A poll taken days earlier and released Wednesday showed Mr. Romney barely ahead of Mr. Gingrich, 36 percent to 34 percent.
Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich both spent part of Friday stumping in Miami, each with an eye on the significant Hispanic population that will participate Tuesday. But while Mr. Gingrich was targeting his fellow Republicans, Mr. Romney was aiming at the White House.
"This President has failed the American people," Mr. Romney said, citing Florida's 9.9 percent employment rate, devastated housing market, declining incomes, and rising costs.
"I was listening pretty closely to his [State of the Union] speech, because I'm expecting to debate him someday," he said. "He says one thing and does something else. It's time for us to say clearly to him, 'Go back home and learn to get a job in the private sector.' "
The other Republicans in the race were absent from the Sunshine State stage Friday.
Mr. Paul, who trails by a wide margin, took part in the two debates but is focusing his efforts on Maine and other states where he can win some of the delegates.
Mr. Santorum, likewise, is far behind, despite having impressed many analysts with his performance in Thursday's debate. Short of money and manpower, he returned to Pennsylvania for a fund-raiser and tonight will host a closed fund-raiser near his home in Virginia.
Reports say some of Mr. Santorum's advisers have urged him not to return to Florida because every minute spent in that state is a minute that might have been better spent elsewhere -- as Mr. Paul is doing -- but the Western Pennsylvania native has maintained that he will campaign everywhere he can. He has events scheduled in south Florida on Sunday and Monday.
"I'm coming back within 24 hours, and I'm here through up to Election Day," he told Fox News. "I've spent every minute here in Florida, and I'm going to work in Florida."
Mr. Romney's stop in the Space Coast was not a coincidence.
Brevard County is the eighth-largest Republican county in the state, and the economy in this county has been hit hard by the conclusion of America's manned space program last year.
His visit also came hard on the heels of a Wednesday appearance in Cape Canaveral by Mr. Gingrich, who in a seemingly desperate pitch for votes promised that if he is elected to two terms, he will establish a colony on the moon.
The remarks raised eyebrows rather than expectations and were widely mocked.
The Romney campaign hastily scheduled the Friday afternoon appearance, requiring workers at Astrotech to spend all night clearing the assembly plant room for a televised campaign event.
With little advance notice for an event that was relatively out of the way, the crowd was not nearly as large as others Mr. Romney has hosted. But the effect of focusing on the space program was that reporters and voters invariably compared his position to that of Mr. Gingrich.
"In the politics of the past, to get your vote on the Space Coast, I would come here and promise hundreds of billions of dollars," Mr. Romney said in a clear dig at Mr. Gingrich. "I'm not going to do that. I know that's very popular, but it's simply the wrong thing to do.
"I spent my life in the private sector. Before you make tough decisions, you start out by saying what's the objective, and then you gather data and see what information we have. Then you see what choices are to be made, and you choose one as your mission and you expect a leader to deliver."
Mr. Romney then returned to his main foil.
"If you want to put together a list of all of President Obama's failures, it would be a long list," he said. "But today I want to talk about his failure to define a mission for the space program for this nation, and people are suffering because of that. We've lost technology because of that, and people have lost jobs because of that.
"A strong and vibrant space program is part of being an exceptional nation. A mission for that space program is essential."
The Washington Post contributed to this report.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Dan Majors is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
Contact Dan Majors at: email@example.com or 412-263-1456.