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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Florida 2nd Most Diverse State For Politicians: GOP Tiebreaker (11% Latino Voters)

Will Florida determine a GOP front-runner?

After one month and three contests, it may be up to Florida to finally add some clarity to the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

With three different winners in the three contests so far, Florida could finally be the state to put one of the four remaining major GOP candidates firmly into the front-runner position.

Polls opened across the state Tuesday for voters who were not among the more than 632,000 who had already cast absentee or early ballots as of Monday. The winner walks away with Florida's 50 delegates -- the largest haul so far in the primary and caucus calendar.

"I think the winner of Florida is in all likelihood going to be the nominee of our party," Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio told CNN Tuesday. "Florida is a mini America."

In the final Florida poll of likely GOP primary voters, released Tuesday by the American Research Group, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had a 12-point lead over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, with former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas far behind. The poll, conducted Sunday and Monday, has a margin of error of four percentage points.

Of the early voters surveyed in the poll released Tuesday, 51% reported voting for Romney and 29% said they voted for Gingrich.

But among voters planning to cast their ballots Tuesday, Romney's lead was tighter, with 39% saying they would vote for him and 32% throwing their support to Gingrich.

Santorum was the choice of 14% of election-day voters. Paul came in fourth, with 10%, according to ARG.

"The GOP contest may end in Florida, but that doesn't mean it will be over," said Alex Castellanos, a GOP strategist and CNN contributor. "With a win, Romney puts the nomination firmly in his grip. But it appears Gingrich and Santorum will keep trying to rip it from his hand."

"Romney's relentless and disciplined effort should get more credit," added Castellanos, who was a top media adviser for Romney's 2008 nomination bid but who is not taking sides this cycle. "No long passes, just three yards a play and a cloud of dust. But with a win on Tuesday, he'll have gotten the nomination the old-fashioned way: He'll have earned it."

Gingrich scheduled several events Tuesday, including a morning trip to the First Baptist Church of Windermere in Orlando, Florida, where he shook hands and took pictures with supporters. Romney scheduled a mid-morning event at his Tampa headquarters.

The former House speaker stormed into Florida 10 days ago on a roll off of his double-digit victory over Romney and the rest of the field in the South Carolina primary.

But his momentum quickly faded after Romney's campaign went on the offensive.

Romney turned in two strong debate performances in the Sunshine State.

And a relentless media attack against Gingrich took its toll.

Romney's lead rapidly expanded over the past week.

The move from the early voting states to Florida saw an increase in negative attacks and a surge in campaign spending.

On the day before the primary, Romney and Gingrich continued to clash, with Gingrich accusing Romney of dishonesty but conceding that a wave of attack ads by the former Massachusetts governor and his supporters had been effective.

"Frankly if all that stuff were true I wouldn't vote for myself," Gingrich said in Jacksonville Monday, referring to what he called "dishonest" Romney ads.

He later told a crowd in Pensacola that "we will only win if the American people decide that they are sick and tired of the New York and Washington establishment thinking that we are dumb enough to let them try to buy an election by telling us things that we all know are just plain not true."

The Romney campaign and an independent super PAC that's supporting his bid have greatly outspent Gingrich and pro-Gingrich super PACs on ad buys in Florida.

Romney acknowledged the turn to the negative, saying that his campaign was forced to respond to a negative salvo by Gingrich that helped the former House speaker win in South Carolina.

And Romney said that Gingrich's vow over the weekend to take his presidential campaign all the way to the Republican convention is a sign of desperation.

"That's usually an indication that you think you're going to lose," Romney told reporters on his campaign charter on Monday. "When you say 'I'm going to go on no matter what happens,' that's usually not a good sign."

Gingrich "has been flailing around a bit trying to go after me for one thing or the other," Romney said later Monday to a crowd in Dunedin. "You just watch it and shake your head. It has been kind of painfully revealing to watch."

While Tuesday is election day, voting began weeks ago.

As of Monday morning, more than 632,000 people had cast ballots in early voting, which began statewide 10 days ago, or absentee ballots, according to statistics from the Florida Department of State, which oversees elections.

To put that into perspective, that's more than the 601,577 who voted in the South Carolina primary, and far outpaces the combined 360,000 that took part in the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucuses earlier this month.

While Romney and Gingrich will be in Florida Tuesday night to watch election returns, Santorum and Paul, knowing they're out of the running for the 50 delegates, have moved on to the next contests.

Santorum campaigned in Missouri and Minnesota Monday and will stump in Colorado and Nevada Tuesday. Paul was in Maine over the weekend and will spend Tuesday in Colorado and Nevada.

Nevada's caucuses follow on Saturday, when Maine starts its weeklong caucuses.
Minnesota and Colorado hold their caucuses on February 7, the same day that Missouri holds its non-binding primary.

The Paul and Santorum campaigns are strategically looking to states in which they can pick up delegates.

"Ultimately they're conceding in advance in Florida, while trying to shore up future states," said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and Republican National Committee communications director. "Unfortunately for Paul and Santorum, that generally has not been a winning strategy.

It's not being done out of a position of strength."

A convincing win for Romney in Florida, coupled with an unfriendly calendar for Gingrich in February with more friendly Super Tuesday states more than a month away, could put Gingrich in a bind.

"If he loses Florida, February doesn't look good for Newt Gingrich.

He'll lose Nevada, with its large LDS (Mormon) population and lose Michigan (February 28), where Romney's father was governor. Newt will have a long march across the desert with no debates to revive his campaign," Castellanos said. "Newt has to hold his breath all the way to Super Tuesday, March 6th, raise 30 or 40 million dollars for advertising and fix his problem with female voters to catch Romney. Those are grandiose problems, even for Gingrich."

But even after Florida's 50 convention delegates are claimed in the winner-take-all primary, neither candidate will have more than 10% of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination at the August convention.

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Sources: CNN, Google Maps

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