Nightly News   |  January 29, 2012

Romney, Gingrich exchange barbs

Strong poll numbers show Mitt Romney in the driver’s seat ahead of Tuesday’s Republican primary in Florida. NBC’s Peter Alexander reports.

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>>> the bruising fight to win tuesday's republican presidential primary in florida has turned into a spectator sport . with less than two days to go the language, characterizations and accusations being traded back and forth between mitt romney and newt gingrich have reached a new level of harshness and it's fueling volatility entering the final stretch. romney 's renewed aggressiveness may be paying off. he's moving up and leading gingrich by 15 points. in a state that four years ago went with the eventual republican nominee. our political team is in place to cover it all. peter alexander is in pompano beach to lead it off.

>> reporter: the bitter feud between mitt romney and newt gingrich continued tonight. even as romney goes on the offensive against gingrich , the romney campaign is saying that it's trying to dismiss gingrich 's attack on romney 's character, calling them both desperate and over the line. with strong poll numbers showing him in the driver's seat, mitt romney didn't let off the gas. at the largest rally of his entire campaign.

>> he's now finding excuses everywhere he can. going from station to station , complaining about what he thinks were the reasons he's had difficulty here in florida. but we've got a president who has a lot of excuses and the excuses are over. it's time to produce.

>> reporter: this morning, den give once again challenged romney 's honesty.

>> this is a smart man, as you point out, he was well-coached. he came into the debate prepared to say things that were false.

>> reporter: later calling himself the legitimate heir to the reagan movement toughened his stance.

>> i just think it will be very, very clear and increasingly clear over the next few weeks that this party not going to nominate somebody who is a pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase liberal.

>> reporter: gingrich 's confrontation with the republican establishment got a boost from sarah palin this weekend who called on voters to defiantly play the role of spoiler.

>> so, if for no other reason, rage against the machine , vote for newt. annoy a liberal, vote newt.

>> reporter: herman cain , who fire the up the tea party with his 9-9-9 tax proposal, endorsed gingrich saturday night.

>> because gingrich is not afraid of bold ideas. and i also know that speaker gingrich is running for president and going through this sausage grinder, i know what this sausage grinder is all about.

>> reporter: after campaigning this weekend in maine, ron paul today argued he's the best candidate to represent fr frustrated voters.

>> enough, who's beniche, who's been in politics all these years and the insider, claiming he's leading the tea party , to me that's strange.

>> reporter: the miami herald wrote, mr. gingrich might be the feistier candidate but if republicans care about elect ability in november mr. romney is the better choice. rick santorum 's oldest daughter took his place while santorum left the trail to be with his 3-year-old daughter bella, who suffered from a rare genetic disorder and is hospitalized this weekend.

>> family comes first and he's being a dad and a husband right now.

>> reporter: while there's one more full day left to go, more than 460,000 floridians have cast their ballots either by absentee