The state of Florida - even without its reputation for hanging chads - loves its emerging role as the most important step in the quest for the Republican nomination and the shining hope for President Obama.
"Let those Republicans fight it out here, calling each other names," said Ann Zucker, president of the Weston Democratic Club, near Ft. Lauderdale. "After listening to Romney, Gingrich and Santorum call each other every possible name in these debates, any sane voter would turn to re-electing our Democratic leader Barack Obama."
Today's headlines in Florida newspapers told the same story.
"RIVALS TRADE FIRE IN S. FLORIDA" was the banner in the Miami Herald this morning.
"Contenders Slug It Out" was the lead story in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.
The Republicans' 19th debate tonight is expected to showcase the importance of the Sunshine State once again. Republicans expect to shower all of these contenders with questions as to U.S. policy towards Cuba.
"As Florida goes, so goes America," is the Republican cry among potential supporters, noting that the GOP winner in Florida gets all of its 57 delegate votes at its national convention.
Florida - considered a November swing state -- is a winner-take-all delegate site and has one of the country's largest GOP delegations.
CNN, NBC, and polling groups for news organizations showed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a dead heat in Florida for the Republican nomination with former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Congressman Ron Paul with lower numbers, while similar polls also showed President Obama with growing leads among Florida voters with respect to handling the office of the presidency, handling the economy, and in positive views for employment opportunities. Local TV news shows in South Florida -- a normally huge Democratic base -- led their newscasts this week with the polling results.
Florida, still trying to throw off its reputation as the hanging chad site of 2000, has been plugging its importance as the most representative state in the early primary season and a major state in the election process with 29 electoral votes.
Underscoring its importance, Florida Republicans will host a pre-selected confab for their calendar - the Hispanic Leadership Forum - on Jan. 26-27, in the Miami area, home to most of the Cubans who emigrated to the U.S. during the Castro years. Interested Republican parties as well as Democratic naysayers noted that the Forum is being heavily touted on local South Florida television. Gingrich and Romney supporters are expected to pack the Forum scheduled for the Doral Country Club. Its official sponsor, The Hispanic Leadership Network (HLN), is a self-described center-right advocacy action group, and recently announced that Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum will address its "Inspiring Action" conference. Carlos Gutierrez, who was the former Commerce Secretary under President George Bush, will serve as conference co-chair, according to the Forum's website. However, a blast of TV commercials only mention and show former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's name and Republicans say that the timing of the conference and the Jan. 31 Florida primary date is just a coincidence.
Jeb Bush says he will remain neutral in the GOP's presidential primary, noting that he considers both Romney and Gingrich credible candidates. Both candidates have courted the popular former Florida governor. (Jeb's father, George H.W. Bush, has been quoted in the Houston Chronicle and on the Internet that he was giving Romney "an unofficial endorsement.") The rumor mills, however, often mention Jeb Bush as a potential nominee in a brokered convention, while other pundits have Florida's junior Senator Marco Rubio a natural for vice president, hopefully to bring with him Florida's large Hispanic vote.
TV commercials -- including those from Super PACs in Florida -- continue to dominate the political scene. Romney alone has spent several hundred thousand dollars for 60-second TV spots the past two weeks in Florida's eight expensive TV markets stretching from the Florida Panhandle to Key West. However, Gingrich and others have countered their messages, responding that Romney's 13.9 per cent in taxes from his multi-million income released to the public on the eve of Obama's State of the Union address only underscored the President's argument that the rich are not paying their fair share.
Romney's tax return, released Tuesday (just before Obama's address to Congress) did not get lost in the presidential news coverage in Florida. Romney's estimated income of nearly $21 million dollars and his low rate of taxation - less than 14 per cent because of capital gains - is now fueling the emerging debate over fairness in the tax code, an issue that President Obama emphasized in his address to the nation. Romney's lack of clarity on his taxes, which continues to dog him even after issuing the 500 page document on the Internet -- is being cited as the reason he did so poorly in last week's South Carolina vote, where Gingrich won overwhelmingly. Gingrich continues to throw the tax salvos at his opponent; a wire service report cited Sen. McCain, who endorsed Romney in early January, calling on Republicans to stop negative campaigning and insults, saying it was harmful to the Republican party. Others are saying the tax issue is the reason Gingrich crushed Romney in South Carolina.
"Whether it's a ball game or a political race, momentum counts...and Gingrich has it," the Republican state Senator Mike Bennett told The Tampa Bay Times in an interview picked up and reprinted around the state. CNN reported that close to 200,000 votes had already been cast as of Wednesday evening.
That may be a moot point right now inasmuch as voting is already underway. Actually, Republicans - primarily die-hard fans of the four remaining GOP candidates -- are already going to the polls in record numbers because of the early voting agreement of the legislature. It allows early voting through Jan. 28, three days before the official election day. In Florida 473,573 absentee ballots have been requested in the past week and, according to election officials, "thousands" have already voted either absentee or at early voting sites around the state.
There are plenty of opinions coming from the early voters. The Miami Herald noted recently that Romney is hoping 2012 will be better than 2008 when Sen, John McCain beat him by 5 percentage points, 36-31 percent. The Herald cited examples of the Romney-Gingrich battle in Florida, such as 71-year old Julio Pallais of Miami, who came to Florida from Nicaragua 25 years ago.
Pallas said he voted for Gingrich because of Romney's stance on illegal immigration, while Joy Diamond of Pompano Beach went for Romney because of Gingrich's age, 68, "not to mention his checkered past," Diamond said.
In the meantime, the debates and battle for those 57 GOP delegates will continue, even if a huge number of the Florida electorate have already voted in the past few days.
Ron Levitt, a freelance writer, is a former United Press Staff Correspondent and now a columnist for Florida Media News. He served as Florida's Assistant Secretary of State and is president of the South Florida International Press Club. If you would like to contribute as a citizen journalist to The Huffington Post's coverage of the 2012 elections, please contact us at www.offthebus.org.