The Republican race in Florida went into overdrive on Sunday, with presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich trading barbs on television talk shows and in an avalanche of attack ads.

Gingrich slammed Romney for the steady stream of advertising attacks he likened to "carpet-bombing," trying to cut into the resurgent front-runner's lead in Florida in the dwindling hours before Tuesday's pivotal presidential primary.

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Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista bow their heads in prayer during a campaign event in Lady Lake, Fla., on Sunday. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

 

And despite surging ahead in polls, Romney wasn't letting up, relentlessly casting Gingrich as an influence peddler with a "record of failed leadership."

An NBC News/Marist poll published Sunday showed Romney with support from 42 per cent of likely Florida primary voters, compared with 27 per cent for Gingrich.

Romney's campaign has dogged Gingrich at his own campaign stops, sending surrogates to remind reporters of Gingrich's House ethics probe in the 1990s and other episodes in his career aimed at sowing doubt about his judgment.

Gingrich accused the former Massachusetts governor and a political committee that supports him of lying, and the GOP's establishment of allowing it.

"I don't know how you debate a person with civility if they're prepared to say things that are just plain factually false," Gingrich said during appearances on Sunday talk shows. "I think the Republican establishment believes it's OK to say and do virtually anything to stop a genuine insurgency from winning because they are very afraid of losing control of the old order.

"It's only when he can mass money to focus on carpet-bombing with negative ads that he gains any traction at all," he said.

'It's only when he can mass money to focus on carpet-bombing with negative ads that he gains any traction at all '— Newt Gingrich on Mitt Romney

Romney and the political committee that supports him had combined to spend an estimated $6.8 million US in ads criticizing Gingrich in the Florida campaign's final week. Gingrich and a super PAC that supports him were spending about one-third that amount.

Romney has already begun advertising in Nevada ahead of that state's caucuses next Saturday.

‘Selling influence’

Romney continued to paint Gingrich as part of the very Washington establishment he condemns and someone who had a role in the nation's economic problems.

"Your problem in Florida is that you worked for Freddie Mac at a time when Freddie Mac was not doing the right thing for the American people, and that you're selling influence in Washington at a time when we need people who will stand up for the truth in Washington," Romney told an audience in Naples.

'His record is one of failed leadership.'— Mitt Romney on Newt Gingrich

Gingrich's consulting firm was paid more than $1.5 million by the federally backed mortgage company over a period after he left Congress in 1999.

"His record is one of failed leadership," Romney told more than 700 people at a rally in Pompano Beach Sunday evening. "We don't need someone who can speak well perhaps, or can say things we agree with, but does not have the experience of being an effective leader."

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, trailing in Florida by a wide margin, stayed with his three-year-old daughter, Bella, who was hospitalized with pneumonia. He told supporters on Sunday night that "she without a doubt has turned the corner," but he cautioned she "isn't out of the woods yet."

Aides said Santorum would resume campaigning Monday in Missouri and Minnesota.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has invested little in Florida, looked ahead to Nevada. Paul is focusing more on gathering delegates in caucus states, where it's less expensive to campaign. But securing the nomination only through caucus states is a hard task.