Salena Zito

"You have the Panhandle, which is basically 'the South'; the I-4 corridor, which is more 'establishment'; and the Miami Beach-Golden Coast area, where the bulk of the Hispanic and evangelical voters are," he said.

In a Republican primary, said Navarro, "the South Florida Hispanic vote is key (because) they tend to be registered Republicans and active voters."

Cuban-Americans, Nicaraguans, Colombians and Venezuelans who settled in Florida could make a difference in a tight race, strategists agree.

Because the Hispanic vote is diverse and sophisticated, "it's no longer enough to have a Cuban cafecito and say, 'Viva Cuba Libre!'" Navarro said, referring to candidates who recite the phrase and drink the artisan coffee for a photo op. "Folks want more specific proposals and are a bit skeptical of pandering on Cuban issues."

The campaigns will spend a lot of money to advertise in Florida's diverse, regionalized media markets of Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach,Tampa-St. Petersburg and Orlando-Brevard, experts say. According to Navarro, talk radio can heavily influence the Hispanic vote.

"Money and organization matter in Florida but are not necessarily the determining factor," she said.

Florida remains the big trophy among early primary states because of its size, diverse populace and status as a must-win swing state -- even though national GOP officials cut the state's delegate count in half when the state party bucked the calendar and moved Florida's primary date ahead of Nevada's.

Political experts say that in Florida, Gingrich has name recognition with retirees and Hispanics and momentum from attention he earned during recent debates. Romney's campaign has superior organization and a bigger donor base. Santorum has little name recognition, money or organization to make a strong showing there.

"Yet Romney has not closed the deal with Floridians," Navarro predicted. "If all the stars line up for Newt, he has a chance to upend conventional wisdom."


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.