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Whether Romney is ahead or behind, Florida primary looms large in his strategy for nomination
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) ' If there's any Republican presidential candidate who can afford to spend precious time and money focusing on winning in Florida, it's the one who campaigned in the state Tuesday.
Florida is the only early primary state Mitt Romney plans to visit this week, little more than a month before voters start weighing in on the GOP nominating fight.
Depending on how he performs in earlier contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina ' all three are still uncertain ' Florida represents either a chance for Romney to either seal the nomination or an opportunity to revive what likely would become, if he's lost three times, a struggling campaign.
Romney spent all day in Florida, attending several fundraisers and holding public events in Miami and Tampa.
Unlike his rivals, Romney has the resources to compete aggressively here. He had nearly $15 million at the end of October and has spent little of it ' a war chest that would allow him to buy expensive TV ads across Florida's 10 media markets. He has national name recognition from his 2008 bid, an asset his team believes will give him a significant advantage over lesser-known rivals in a large state where retail politicking alone doesn't cut it. And he's kept in good touch with the support and fundraising network he built last time around, an effort that's shown through as he's picked up endorsements from many of the state's top Republicans, including Sen. Mel Martinez and former Sen. Connie Mack.
All that would also help him in the general election against President Barack Obama, where Florida is a key battleground
"They don't want to see me as the nominee, that's for sure," Romney told reporters Tuesday. Democrats started running paid TV ads against him on Monday. "It shows that they're awfully afraid of facing me in the general election. They want to throw the primary process to anybody but me, but bring it on. We're ready for them."
But Romney's team also recognizes that losing Florida could doom his chances of winning the nomination ' and Romney's efforts here show that. He's stayed on safe ground on Social Security, important to the state's significant elderly population, while hammering rival Rick Perry for calling the program a "Ponzi scheme." He's also reached out to the Cuban American community, a historically Republican constituency that plays a significant role in state politics. On Tuesday, former Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart and his brother, former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, all backed him at an event in Miami. Those three endorsed Sen. John McCain in 2008.
His campaign is also preparing an on-the-ground strategy. His five paid staffers are preparing volunteers to begin grass roots activities just before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary ' a necessity because absentee and military ballots start going out Dec. 27. The Romney campaign is holding three weekly strategy calls with its Florida team.
Contrast that with most of his rivals, who have spent most of the primary campaign jockeying to become the consensus conservative alternative to the former Massachusetts governor ' and probably need to win at least one earlier-than-Florida primary to stand a chance of surviving to compete with Romney here.
Newt Gingrich is spending the week in South Carolina and Iowa. Perry and Jon Huntsman are campaigning in New Hampshire. Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann are in Iowa. Herman Cain is scheduled to make stops in Michigan and Ohio, though his campaign is now battling new accusations that he had an extramarital affair.
"It's almost like every other campaign is focused on this slingshot strategy with having to win one or two other states and then coming into Florida with momentum," said Brett Doster, who ran former President George W. Bush's re-election campaign in Florida and is now advising Romney.
Almost all of Romney's rivals, on the other hand, acknowledge they're barely thinking about Florida.
"This race hasn't come to Florida yet," said Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond. Gingrich's first priority is South Carolina, where he's hired nearly a dozen people and opened several campaign offices.
"Iowa and New Hampshire and the earliest states are priorities for the governor's time and our campaign," said Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan.
"We felt all along that Iowa was going to be our priority from day number one," said Bachmann spokeswoman Alice Stewart. "As to when and how we campaign in Florida will be decided after the caucuses." Bachmann will be in Florida for a fundraiser Dec. 1.
Most of the Republican field did gather here for three days of events surrounding a debate and a straw poll at the end of September. But since then, Bachmann and Perry haven't come back for public events. Huntsman moved his campaign headquarters from Orlando to Manchester, N.H.
Cain, who won the straw poll, was in Miami earlier this month, where he visited a restaurant in Little Havana that's a frequent stop for political candidates. But he's dogged by allegations of sexual harassment and now an extramarital affair, and has suffered in polls for it.
The straw poll was a setback for Perry. Still, he pays a staff of 11 in the state and has worked to cultivate relationships with tea party leaders. He's also hired a national campaign team that has significant Florida experience. But Perry hasn't been back since September, and a series of bad debate performances has hampered his fundraising and ability to compete here.