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The Florida keys

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Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich cheer as he arrives at a rally in Florida [Reuters]By Alan Fisher

The Florida primary is always an important point in the presidential nomination process in the US.  But after Newt Gingrich’s surprising turnaround win in South Carolina, it now takes on added significance.

It is here – in what will be a key battleground state in November’s general election – that the sudden emergence of the former speaker of the US House of Representatives as a genuine contender may be validated. Or it will be where Mitt Romney will try to rebuild the aura of inevitability around his nomination, which was so dramatically punctured just a week ago.

For the moment, the advantages seem to stack up with Romney.  His campaign is large, well co-ordinated and very well funded. He had two good debate performances during the week, hammering Newt Gingrich on a number of tough issues. Gingrich, the self proclaimed "best debater in the party" looked slightly bemused by the guile of Romney’s barbs and has since seen his opinion polls ratings drop. “He looked like the school bully whose victim had suddenly learned to fight back”, said one commentator on Twitter.

The first three contests, in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, have produced three different winners. But campaigning in Florida is different. 

Firstly, there’s the size of the electorate. More people turned out to vote for Jacksonville’s mayor last year than turned out in all of Iowa’s caucuses. Four million registered Republicans can vote in what is a closed primary. That means, unlike the first three stops, no independents or Democrats can influence the result. That gives a much more accurate picture of where Republican support really lies and can shape the views of voters in contests to come. Susan MacManus, who has covered many of these contests and lectures in political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa told me:

"The whole country is watching, but in particular Republicans outside Florida are really paying attention. So this gives a louder voice to Florida."

Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, Florida is incredibly diverse and much more reflective of the voters across America as a whole. Adam Smith is the political editor of the Tampa Bay Times. Standing outside his office in the warm late afternoon sun, he told me how the candidates essentially have to wage several campaigns in the one state and not just appeal to a narrow slice of the electorate:

"Its rural, it’s urban, it’s suburban, it’s moderate it’s evangelical, and for the first time in this season it’s a significant number of Hispanic Republicans. You’re really getting a pretty good cross section of America here."

In Iowa, candidates had months to troop round all 99 counties, shake hands and talk with voters and build up a personal relationship with local leaders who could deliver results. It worked for Santorum who came from nowhere to top the poll. In New Hampshire, Mitt Romney’s personal ties secured victory, while in South Carolina, Gingrich’s strong campaign message turned the votes in his favour. In Florida, a combination of all three is required. And that has to be topped off with TV ads and airtime. With three of the top 20 media markers in the US in Florida, a statewide ad can cost millions of dollars.

And there has to be a structure and operation that can get the vote out. Anyone who struggles to do that now might not be any better placed come November. Republicans know if they have any chance of winning the White House, they have to win the swing state of Florida first.

The Republican party is back in Tampa in August for its convention. By then we should know who the nominee is for president and just how important this state was in that process.

Follow Alan on Twitter throughout the election campaign @alanfisher


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