The Sunshine states showdown means the stakes couldn’t be higher ahead of CNN debate

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The CNN GOP Florida Presidential debate between all four remaining GOP hopefuls takes place tonight, and the stakes couldn’t be higher between front runner Mitt Romney, and his close rival former speaker Newt Gingrich. Many believe a mistake by either man or a failure to perform tonight could decide the outcome of next Tuesday’s primary such has been the attention and importance of these debate in the campaign season.

The latest public opinion polls suggest that the battle for Florida’s 50 winner-take-all delegates — the largest catch so far this primary and caucus season — is turning into a two-man race between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. According to a CNN/Time/ORC International survey released Wednesday, 36% of people likely to vote in Tuesday’s Republican primary in Florida say they are backing Romney as the party’s nominee, with 34% supporting Gingrich. Romney’s 2-point margin over Gingrich is well within the survey’s sampling error.

The other two candidates are far behind, with former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania at 11% and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas at 9%, with 7% unsure of who they’ll vote for.

Santorum is campaigning across the Sunshine State but Paul is showing up to attend just the two debates here this week. Both seem to be looking ahead to Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, which hold their contests early next month

All four candidates will share the stage Thursday night for the debate at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, which is being hosted by CNN, the Republican Party of Florida and the Hispanic Leadership Network, a center-right advocacy group.

Wolf Blitzer, anchor of CNN’s “The Situation Room,” will moderate the forum, which starts at 8 p.m. ET.

Gingrich came out of his double-digit victory in Saturday’s South Carolina primary with momentum, but Wednesday’s CNN poll and another by the American Research Group indicate that the former House speaker’s momentum might be waning.

And Monday’s debate in Tampa might not have helped Gingrich, as he repeatedly came under attack by Romney, Santorum and Paul over his record as House speaker in the 1990s, characterizations of influence-peddling after getting out of government and his past stance on health care reform. Gingrich didn’t seem to mount an effective response to many of the attacks.

When it comes to debates, which have had an outsized effect on polls and on primary and election results, it was a role-reversal for Gingrich and Romney, and something that Gingrich needs to remedy Thursday night.

“Voters can smell fear and they can smell confidence. Newt has been displaying confidence, strength, even having fun in these debates. He needs to continue that. That’s the mark of a leader,” a GOP strategist said.

With five days to go until the primary, the CNN/Time/ORC poll indicates that a quarter of likely primary voters say they may change their mind on which candidate they are backing, which makes the debate a final chance for the candidates to reach a statewide audience, as well as viewers across the nation. The economy — and jobs in particular — the housing crisis, which is particularly acute in Florida, illegal immigration and health care reform are topics likely to be debated during the showdown.

But undecided voters might be tuned into more than just the issues.

“There is only a smidgeon of difference between Gingrich and Romney on issues. That means they are going to draw differences on personal qualities and character: Who is the stronger leader? Who is a flawed vessel for the nation’s hopes and fears?”  “Voters don’t know what tests a president will face, but they do know he’ll be tested. When picking a president, how a leader reacts under pressure is more important than issues. Romney should not appear stressed or uncertain on the attack. He needs to display confidence and be a joyous warrior, like Gingrich.”

Gingrich’s campaign was left for dead after early stumbles in May and June, but he came back and soared to front-runner status in polling in late November and early December. But he faltered again, with poor showings in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, before mounting a second comeback in South Carolina.

That made Romney’s path to the nomination a lot tougher now that it was a week ago.

“Romney must think these debates are ‘The Night of Living Dead,’ Newt Gingrich keeps rising from the grave every few weeks to challenge him. And every time he does, he’s a little harder to dispatch. Wooden stakes and silver bullets don’t seem to stop Gingrich. He keeps coming back.”

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