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Florida's Winner-Take-All Primary Heats Up GOP Race

GOP presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney kicks off his Florida campaign with a rally at All-Star Building Materials in Ormond Beach, Fla.
Roberto Gonzalez
GOP presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney kicks off his Florida campaign with a rally at All-Star Building Materials in Ormond Beach, Fla.

In the race for the Republican presidential nomination, the tally stands at 1-1-1. Over the weekend, former House speaker Newt Gingrich re-established himself as a presidential contender with a resounding victory in South Carolina's primary.

He beat second-place finisher former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by more than 12 points. That means Romney, Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum have each won a nominating contest. Now all eyes are on Florida.

For the three Republican candidates actively competing in the Sunshine State — Gingrich, Romney and Santorum — the stakes have been raised. Florida's primary eight days from now is winner take all. The top finisher gets 50 delegates. That's more than Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina combined.


Florida Republican chairman Lenny Curry noted that Florida is not just larger but is also more diverse ethnically and politically.

"Because we are that diverse, winning a primary in Florida, you've basically won in a state that represents what America represents," Curry said, "which I think speaks to the electability and competitiveness in a general election."

For Romney, Florida represents a chance to hit the reset button on his campaign. A day after his drubbing in South Carolina, he held a campaign rally in Ormond Beach.

"Are you ready to send Barack Obama home to Chicago?" Romney asked the crowd. "You know, last time some people in Florida gave him a pass to the White House. We're taking it back, right?"

In Florida, Romney has a lot going for him. Polls taken there before the South Carolina primary show him with a strong lead. He has a well-funded statewide organization that has been working for months. And he has already spent millions on campaign ads — far outdistancing any other candidate.


One thing his campaign has done is organize absentee voters. More than a week before the primary, about 200,000 Floridians have already cast ballots either through the mail or at early-voting locations.

In the south Florida suburb of Coral Springs, voter Jack Frost, who had just cast his early ballot for Romney, said he didn't think Floridians would be influenced by the South Carolina results.

"I don't view the demographics of South Carolina to be similar to the demographics in Florida," Frost said. "I don't think that the values they embrace up there are embraced by a majority of the people who live in Florida."

Among Florida Republicans, polls show the major issues are jobs and the economy; social issues are less important.

Romney has signaled that he is taking the gloves off. He attacked Gingrich for what he called his work as a lobbyist. Romney's campaign has also called for Gingrich to release records of the congressional ethics investigation conducted while he was House speaker.

In Coral Springs on Sunday, Santorum also directed some of his fire at Gingrich.

"When Newt was speaker of the House, well, within three years, the conservatives within the House of Representatives tried to throw him out. And in the fourth year, they did. Why? Because he wasn't governing as a conservative," Santorum said.

While two of his rivals were taking potshots, Gingrich wasn't in Florida. He took his campaign to the Sunday talk shows. On CNN, he outlined his pitch to Florida Republicans.

"My job in Florida is to convince people that I am the one candidate who can clearly defeat Obama in a series of debates, and the one candidate who has big enough solutions that they would really get America back on track," Gingrich said.

With less money and organization, Gingrich begins the battle for Florida less well-armed than Romney. But, coming off his victory in South Carolina, he has something that might be even better: momentum.

Voter Jean Hicks cast her early ballot for Gingrich on Sunday. She liked him before the South Carolina debates, she said. But his performance — especially his sharp rejoinders with members of the media — showed her that he is just what the country needs, she said.

"We need somebody that can truly be bold and say it as it is," Hicks said. "Without any fear, and without any precaution, just say it — say what people are feeling. We are hurting out here."

Unlike Iowa, New Hampshire and even South Carolina, Florida is too big to win through grass-roots campaigning alone. The only way to effectively reach the state's 4 million registered Republicans is through TV. But in a state with 10 major media markets, that's costly. A statewide TV ad campaign costs more than $1 million a week.

Romney's ads have been up for weeks, and more are coming. Gingrich and Santorum will get what may be their best chance to talk to voters statewide when the candidates meet in two televised debates this week. The first one is Monday night in Tampa.