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GOP race turns to new terrain in Florida

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POSTED January 23, 2012 1:26 a.m.

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Now it’s Florida’s turn.

And Republican presidential rivals Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have just 10 days to navigate a state unlike any they’ve competed in so far. Florida is six times larger than New Hampshire, has almost five times more Hispanics than Iowa, and, with numerous media markets, is much more expensive for candidates than South Carolina. That’s where Gingrich trounced Romney on Saturday night, suddenly scrambling the GOP presidential race ahead of Florida’s Jan. 31 primary.

“It’s been fascinating spectator sport so far,” Beth Schiller, 48, said inside Buddy Brew Coffee shop the next morning. “But it’s coming here now. They’re all coming.”

Indeed, the remaining candidates in a shrunken field — Romney, Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul — planned to be in the state Monday for the first of two presidential debates this week.

All eyes were certain to be on what’s essentially a two-man race.

After a crushing South Carolina defeat, Romney no longer faces the prospect of wrapping up the nomination quickly and now is forced to regroup. He has spent months planning for the Florida campaign, essentially building a firewall in the state. He has the largest organization of any candidate. And he and his allies combined have had the TV airwaves all to themselves for weeks, already spending roughly $6 million combined. The former Massachusetts governor’s areas of strength in the diverse state may be with the transplanted Northeasterners and snowbirds along the Gold Coast.

But now there are doubts about whether he can knit together the broad cross-section of Republican voters he’d need to win in this state, much less the nomination.

“I’m looking forward to a long campaign,” Romney said on “Fox News Sunday,” an acknowledgment that he wouldn’t sew up the nomination with a Florida victory as aides once had hoped.

Gingrich, for his part, will work to keep his momentum going despite continued division among tea party and religious activists who, to a certain degree, continue to divide their support between him and Santorum. The state’s conservative panhandle may be fertile ground for the former Georgia lawmaker who talks of his Southern roots often. His team also is working hard to court evangelicals, who vote in droves in the state’s GOP primaries and who tend to look skeptically on Romney.

He dramatically trails Romney in fundraising and organization in the state, underscored by his launching of an online “money bomb” Saturday night to try to raise $1 million to help fund his efforts in Florida.

“My job in Florida is to convince people that I am the one candidate who can clearly defeat Obama in a series of debates and the one candidate who has big enough solutions that they would really get America back on track,” Gingrich told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

His South Carolina victory is certain to change the dynamics in a state where Romney has led in polls for weeks.

“People want to get behind a winner,” said Tom Gaitens, co-founder of the Tampa Tea Party and state director for the conservative organization FreedomWorks. “People will be drawn to Newt like a magnet.”

Florida’s size and diversity creates challenges for all the candidates. And the issues may be far different than those in the previous states.

There are 10 distinct media markets in Florida, which helps explain the tremendous cost of running a statewide campaign here.

And the voters are anything but homogenous.

Northern Florida along the panhandle is as close to the South as the state offers. It’s the least populated and considered the most culturally conservative. Southeastern Florida, including the Miami area, is traditionally not as conservative as the rest of the state, offering a large Latino population and many Northeastern transplants and Jewish voters. The bulk of the state’s Republicans, including a significant collection of evangelicals, live along central Florida’s Interstate 4 corridor, including Tampa and Orlando.

Exit polling from the 2008 GOP primary shows that approximately 39 percent of voters identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians. That’s a significant voting bloc Gingrich has been targeting. He won evangelicals soundly in South Carolina, where they constituted roughly 65 percent of the electorate.

Hispanics are also key.

Romney is already on television running an advertisement in Spanish. Gingrich plans to do the same. The Gingrich team is based in the Miami area, the epicenter of the state’s considerable Cuban population. Cubans make up roughly a third of the state’s Hispanic population and figure to play prominently.

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