Tuesday’s Florida primary could be make-or-break for the two men battling to secure the Republican presidential nomination. After seemingly taking the first two contests (the Iowa caucus was belatedly handed to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum ) and then losing by double digits in South Carolina last week, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney appears to have gotten his groove back.
The on-and-off leading contender in the hotly contested GOP presidential scrum still has a solid New Hampshire win in his pocket, but his team is looking for a convincing win in the first big state on the primary map, Florida, to help solidify his lead and possibly push him out of reach of his rivals.
Newt Gingrich has a W in his column from South Carolina, but the conservative firebrand has seen his poll position slip over the past week. That drop is mostly due to Romney putting up two solid debate performances last week and splashing out millions from his massive campaign war chest on ads attacking the former House Speaker.
So what should voters be on the lookout for on Tuesday?
Money: Gingrich’s win in South Carolina helped him raise $1 million to spend on ads in Florida — combined with $2.5 million from the outside group Winning Our Future. But those figures paled next to the estimated $15 million that Romney (and his affiliates) spent to saturate the airwaves in a state where media ubiquity helps seal the deal. Tough ads linking Gingrich to Freddie Mac and the housing crisis and reminding Hispanic voters that he once called Spanish the language of the “ghetto” showed a tougher side of the Romney team.
Too-close-to-call: If Romney can’t deliver a decisive win in Florida over Gingrich, the former House leader may be able to make good on his promise this week to hang around until this summer’s RNC convention. A solid victory, though, could cause Gingrich’s donations to shrink and push him back out of contention.
Hispanic vote: Both Romney and Gingrich — Santorum is polling well behind both men and Rep. Ron Paul has decided to skip campaigning in Florida to focus elsewhere — heavily courted the state’s 1.5 million Hispanic voters. Gingrich called Romney the GOP field’s most anti-immigration candidate at Thursday’s debate and the men have very different views on how to deal with illegal immigrants who are already in the country.
The debate factor: After Gingrich zoomed back into contention thanks to some strong debate performances before the South Carolina contest, Romney’s team put their candidate on the attack in the two pre-Florida showdowns. The tactic worked, as Romney put the usually unflappable Gingrich on his heels. Exit polls could show how big an impact those debate performances had on voters’ decisions.
Herman Helper?: Momentary field leader Herman Cain dropped out of the race due to a series of sexual harassment and infidelity allegations in December, but he got his name back on voter’s lips this week when he “enthusiastically” endorsed Gingrich. But given the tawdry allegations that undid Cain and Gingrich’s own battle to turn talk away from his three marriages, it will be interesting to see if Cain’s endorsement gave Gingrich a bump or peeled voters away.
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