Even as voters in the Sunshine state take to the polls Tuesday, the outcome of the fourth-in-the-nation GOP presidential primary is widely believed to be known.
Leading the latest polls by double-digits, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and outside groups spending on his behalf, vastly outspent his rivals, flooding the air and radio waves with nearly $20 million in advertising. He bested his top rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in the pair of debates held in Florida. And he was able to effectively reach out to important voting blocs, namely Cuban-Americans living in south Florida near Miami and Puerto Ricans in central Florida.
Romney also held his ground on the issue of immigration, repeating comments he previously made in more anti-immigrant states like Iowa and New Hampshire, that he would veto the legislation creating a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants currently in the United States. But he was able to win over the Latinos in Florida in part by stressing his commitment to family.
For Gingrich, Florida's diverse electorate and the advertising disparity have proven tough to cope with. In South Carolina's primary 10 days ago, he was able to mount a come-from-behind defeat of Romney by tossing red meat to the largely homogenous and very conservative Palmetto state voters. He also benefitted from Romney being on the defensive, because at that point, he declined to publicly release his tax returns.
But if the momentum is shifting Gingrich's way in Florida, as his campaign has been trying to convince the press it is, it was not apparent at the pre-election day rally he held Monday in Tampa. A paltry crowd of about 150 people showed up at the rally in the city of more than 335,000 residents. Gingrich also found himself on his heels against Romney's charges that he was profiting from his contract with Freddie Mac, the quasi-government mortgage giant, while many Floridians were losing their homes and property value. Many Republicans blame Freddie Mac and sister organization Fannie Mae for the housing meltdown, which struck Florida particularly hard. Experts said the attacks carried weight with Florida residents, who are very familiar with the housing giant in a negative way.
The remaining candidates, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul both wrote the geographically large and expensive media state off early on. Both were polling far behind the front-runners.
Paul's campaign informed reporters he would be focusing on caucus states, where his extremely loyal and enthusiastic supporters would be most effective at garnering support for the congressman. While his opponents were getting sunburned in the south, Paul was braving the cold in Maine, where voters will caucus between Feb. 4 and 11. Paul received strong support and attracted crowds in the thousands in the Pine Tree state, which has a history of embracing libertarian candidates. In the 1992 presidential election, Ross Perot beat out Republican George H.W. Bush in Maine for second place, though both lost to Democrat Bill Clinton.
Santorum had to pull out of the handful of events he had scheduled in Florida when his 3-year-old daughter, Bella, was admitted to the hospital. Though she suffers from a rare genetic disorder and was near death over the weekend, she is currently doing well in recovery, Santorum told supporters. But even before the family emergency, he was planning on returning to Pennsylvania and Virginia to hold fundraisers. His campaign recently announced he would be concentrating on winning support in states voting on March 6, known as 'Super Tuesday.'
In Florida and elsewhere, the more moderate Romney has benefited from his conservative opponents splitting the vote in the GOP race. As long as all four men remain in the race, his chances for victory remain high.
And though Gingrich hasn't officially called on Santorum to drop out, he has been urging Florida conservatives to be "practical" with their ballots, noting that he's the only one who has a chance of topping Romney on Tuesday.