TAMPA, Fla. - Mitt Romney has already spent millions on advertising in Florida. He has the most endorsements, and his campaign headquarters here is within view of the arena where the Republican Party will anoint its nominee this summer.
He just opened his first Florida office two weeks ago. He has been absent from the TV airwaves in this crucial primary battleground. And he was scrambling yesterday to raise money for the next phase of his GOP campaign.
But the former House speaker has a ready platform to help him overcome Romney’s big advantages: debates tonight and Thursday that will play in all 10 Florida TV markets, free of charge.
Even with his enormous victory in South Carolina on Saturday, Gingrich is still playing with a weak hand in a large state that requires a greater level of organization and resources than any of the contests thus far.
Gingrich instead will rely on his formidable debating skills, which propelled him in South Carolina.
Republican observers say the debates will be the centerpiece of an extraordinary week, even by the standards of Florida, which has grown accustomed to making political history (Remember “hanging chads,’’ which threw the 2000 Florida results into disarray?)
“It’s going to be a knife fight,’’ said Brian Hughes, the spokesman for Florida’s GOP.
As the South Carolina campaign drew to its tumultuous close, Gingrich supporters in Florida were giddy with excitement as polls showed him surging. His win turned them euphoric. Thousands of yard signs bearing his name have been flowing out of a warehouse, hauled away in pickups and cars, destined for lawns across the Sunshine State.
“Now, I think Florida is in play. Big time,’’ proclaimed Richard Crotty, a former mayor of Orange County and cochairman of the Gingrich campaign in Florida. “The next eight days will be the most exciting eight days in Florida politics since the Bush-Gore recount in 2000.’’
Clearly, Gingrich and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum could find themselves outmatched here and have little time to get their campaigns fully in gear. At Gingrich’s Orlando headquarters, for example, phone banks sat silent last week because of a glitch with communications lines.
While Santorum and Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who finished third and fourth in South Carolina, have vowed to press on with their campaigns, Florida could be a two-man race.
The Republican Party of Florida is expecting a record turnout, now even more so because of the campaign’s volatility. Already, more than 200,000 absentee and other early voters have submitted their ballots.
Florida’s geography - it encompasses nearly 66,000 square miles and extends 500 miles from north to south - makes the retail politics of New Hampshire and Iowa ineffective in reaching the state’s 4.1 million registered Republicans. Instead, candidates must count on expensive television ads to get their message out.
“It’s going to be a scramble,’’ said Hughes, the state GOP spokesman. “There’s going to be a lot of ground to cover, and lots of television ads.’’
To win this state, “it takes people and it takes financial resources - and, clearly, Romney has both,’’ Hughes said. “Now that this is up for grabs, Republicans are going to try and coalesce around the candidate they think can beat Obama.’’
Obama has made regular visits to Florida, including one as recently as last week. In Orlando, he announced rules intended to boost foreign tourism to destinations such as Disney World.
Florida’s political dynamics and demographics differ sharply from that of the other early-voting states. While South Carolina provided a test in the GOP field’s ability to woo the party’s traditional factions - fiscal conservatives, defense hawks, and values voters - Florida could force candidates to appeal to a broader mix, a test for what lies ahead in a general election.
“This is a state Republicans will need to have,’’ said Jim Kane, a pollster and professor at the University of Florida.
The state’s high population of seniors means candidates may have to tread lightly on Medicare and Social Security issues. And the state’s surging Latino population - nearly one in four residents here is now of Hispanic descent - could mean dampened rhetoric on illegal immigration.
The state does share, with South Carolina, an unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent, and by most accounts jobs are the most pressing concern among voters, regardless of the demographic.
Last week, Florida voters echoed elements of the debate roiling in South Carolina, as they pondered Romney’s track record at Bain Capital. David Agdern, 77, and his wife debated the merits of Romney’s business acumen and his ability to lead a restive party.
“You can’t run a government like a business,’’ asserted Agdern, who with his wife lives in Boynton Beach.
“Why not? I think you should,’’ interjected his wife, Claire, 86.
Another voter said Romney may lack a visceral appeal, but his managerial experience makes him a strong candidate.
“To me, he doesn’t seem to have a soul, but he looks like a good leader,’’ said Mike Raymond, an Orlando resident who remains undecided.
“Maybe to be a good leader, you sometimes have to distance yourself from the rest of humanity.’’