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Romney and Gingrich slug it out

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have traded nasty accusations over character, consistency and leadership as one day remained before Florida's critical primary vote.

Mr Romney holds a strong lead in Florida, but the race to win the party's nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in November has become wildly unpredictable.

Mr Romney was going all out to crush Mr Gingrich, who has risen more than once - including last week - to lead in polls.

Mr Romney has fought back with aggressive debate performances in Florida, and an NBC News/Marist poll published on Sunday showed him with support from 42% of likely Florida primary voters, compared with 27% for Mr Gingrich. But after a crushing defeat by Mr Gingrich earlier this month in South Carolina, Mr Romney appeared as if he was trying to deflate Mr Gingrich's candidacy and assure a leading role for good.

The three states that have held primaries or caucuses have picked three different winners. Florida, the largest and most diverse state to vote so far, could make the front-runner clear, especially with just four candidates remaining and Rick Santorum and Ron Paul trailing.

Mr Gingrich has been fighting back with his own now-customary invective, attacking Mr Romney for "carpet-bombing with negative ads." Mr Gingrich continues to be sensitive to the millions of dollars that an independent so-called "super political action committee" that supports Mr Romney has been spending. He trails Mr Romney in such financial firepower as well.

Mr Romney has not been not letting up. Instead of stepping back and refocusing on Mr Obama as he did earlier, the enormously wealthy former venture capitalist is turning up his rhetoric. He hopes to close the Florida campaign strongly and to push Mr Gingrich as far back as possible.

Both are trying to win the conservative Republican base and go after Mr Obama, who remains vulnerable as the country tries to recover from recession.

Aides say Mr Romney's attacks are partially a response to increasingly angry rhetoric from Mr Gingrich, who on Sunday called him "somebody who is a pro-abortion, pro-gun-control, pro-tax-increase liberal." He also accused Mr Romney of lying.

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