Salena Zito

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It's on to Florida for Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.

The four Republicans remain in competition for the party's presidential nod after South Carolina's primary election. Saturday night's stunning results sent the four farther south today in advance of the Sunshine State's Jan. 31 primary.

"In Florida, momentum matters," said Ana Navarro, a Miami-based GOP strategist. "As of a few days ago, it was practically a given that Romney was coming into the state at 3-0. Now after Iowa results changed and Gingrich's win in South Carolina, Romney comes into the state battled and limping."

Gingrich won the South Carolina primary with 41 percent of the vote in preliminary results, and Romney placed second with 27 percent. Santorum, declared the top vote-getter in Iowa's Jan. 3 caucus after a recount, received 17 percent. Paul garnered 13 percent.

How Gingrich is perceived as a winner by Floridians depends on him, said Alex Castellanos, a Washington-based GOP strategist. "It's one thing to be the underdog; it's another to be the leader," he said. "Florida is an entirely different state than South Carolina."

Romney leads in the polls in Florida with more than 40 percent of Republican voters; he is followed by Gingrich with 22 percent; Santorum comes in third with 15 percent; and Paul has 9 percent, according to an aggregation of poll results compiled by RealClearPolitics.com.

More than 170,000 voters have cast early ballots in Florida, and more than 460,000 people requested ballots, said Brian Hughes, communications director for the Florida Republican Party. Early voting began last week in five counties and, beginning on Monday, will continue in 62 counties.

"We have 4 million registered Republican voters in this state," Hughes said. "We expect at least 51 percent of them will participate."

Four years ago, the presidential race drew 1.9 million Florida Republicans to the polls. The state has the first "closed" primary among the early contests; residents had to register with the party by Jan. 3 to be eligible to vote.

"It is a going to be a vibrant contest, and Floridians love a good battle of ideas," said Tom Rooney, a Florida congressman and grandson of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr.

Rooney, who served in the Army, is actively supporting Romney.

"I had three key issues that went into my decision: jobs, the debt and national security," he said. "Romney clearly passed that test for me."

Three distinct voting blocs could influence the GOP primary in Florida, said Castellanos, an adviser to Republican presidential campaigns.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.