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.

"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.