SPRING HILL — Mary Mazzucco liked what she saw in Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain.
Mazzucco, who owns a Spring Hill home-building company with her husband, Joe, thought it was time to have a businessman in the White House, and she liked the simplicity of Cain's tax plan.
Then Cain dropped out, and Mazzucco had to make up her mind again. Now she is supporting former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, not just with her vote, but with an in-kind donation of vacant office space on Cortez Boulevard that is serving as Gingrich's Hernando headquarters.
"This is not a flashy place, but we're trying to make it our own," Mazzucco said, adding that she is confident Gingrich, not former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, will win Tuesday's Florida presidential preference primary and go on to get the nomination.
This year's Republican primary race has proven to be one of the most unpredictable races in recent memory. But in Hernando, there are plenty of Republicans who are as confident as Mazzucco, working for the respective campaigns and casting their votes early.
Others, however, seem content to wait it out until the last moment before casting their vote on Tuesday, said Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the Hernando Republican Executive Committee and vice chairman of the state party.
"I think there are a lot of people still undecided," Ingoglia said, "or who could very easily change their vote."
The county had 47,562 Republican voters as of Jan. 3, the last day to register to be eligible to vote in the primary. A little more than 2,600 of them had already cast ballots by close of business Wednesday, according to the Hernando Supervisor of Elections Office.
At this point the race is a battle between frontrunners Romney and Gingrich, and an informal survey by the Tampa Bay Times of prominent Hernando Republicans reflected that. One called former U.S. Rep. Rick Santorum their favorite; another mentioned U.S. Rep. Ron Paul.
Romney had a strong showing here in the 2008 primary, placing second behind Sen. John McCain. Among those who publicly support Romney this time around is County Commissioner Dave Russell, who is serving as honorary co-chairman for the campaign, as he did in 2008.
The Romney campaign does not have a headquarters set up in Hernando, so much of the work is done in the homes of volunteers who make phone calls, said co-chairwoman Laurie Pizzo.
Pizzo, a Spring Hill Realtor, said her own personal reasons for supporting Romney are simple.
"We need a businessperson more than ever in the White House," she said. "A lot of people don't want a career politician, and he's not a career politician."
Brooksville resident Tom Hogan Sr., who has served as state committeeman for more than 40 years, voted for Gingrich in the Presidency 5 straw poll conducted in Orlando last September. Hogan said he was impressed with Gingrich's term as Speaker of the House and hasn't bought into the criticism over his adultery or consultant work for Freddie Mac, a company that invested in risky mortgages and then needed billions of dollars in taxpayer money for a bailout after the housing market collapse.
"I see him as a real conservative," Hogan said. "I think he had a very tough tenure and accomplished a lot because of it. He was in almost a hostile atmosphere there with his own party. It was like trying to herd a bunch of open range chickens, and there were a bunch of roosters trying to take over the flock."
County Commissioner Chairman Jim Adkins likes Gingrich, and so does Ana Trinque, immediate past chair of the Hernando REC. Trinque supported Cain until he dropped out, but likes Gingrich's experience and support for tax reform.
Hernando Clerk of Court Karen Nicolai said she'll probably vote for Romney, but she's not very excited about it.
"He's okay," Nicolai said. "It's hard for me to get excited about anyone anymore in either party because they're all so party-oriented. It's just so sad. We need to come together as a country."
Commissioner Jeff Stabins is leaning a bit toward Ron Paul because "there is a libertarian inside of me."
"Frankly, I've enjoyed the battle," Stabins said. "I don't think it's good for the party, but I do think it's good for democracy. Republicans don't often have races like this. Usually we anoint someone early on.''
Other local Republicans, including Commissioner John Druzbick, are either undecided or, like Ingoglia, declined to say which candidate they are supporting. U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent of Spring Hill and Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis said they wanted to keep their votes to themselves. So did commission Chairman Wayne Dukes.
Brooksville Vice Mayor Lara Bradburn said Santorum is her favorite, in large part because of his focus on family and opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
Santorum supporters will be making calls and waving signs this weekend, said county campaign chairman Jeff Holcomb.
Paul supporters are walking precincts and dropping by the homes of Republican voters. Among the Texas representative's most ardent supporters is Linda Hayward, a Brooksville bookkeeper who has become a vocal antitax activist in recent years.
Hayward acknowledged that Paul doesn't have a real shot at winning. His strong libertarian bent is not for everyone, she said, and she doesn't agree with everything the candidate says. But that hasn't stopped her from heading out to the county's busiest intersections to wave signs for him, even it means enduring abuse from passing motorists.
"He has opened the eyes of so many citizens in the country to the dire situation we're in financially — that our military is in 130 countries throughout the world," Hayward said. "In my mind, he's one of the people we should be looking up to rather than making fun of."
Hernando voter allegiance has shifted in the last year toward the GOP, according to party change requests.
Between Jan. 1 2011, and Jan 3. 2012, the primary registration deadline, 461 Democrats switched to the Republican Party, compared to 248 voters who went in the opposite direction.
In the same period, 375 no-party voters switched to the GOP, compared to 227 no-party voters who switched to the Democratic Party.
Despite the varying opinions among local Republicans, they are poised to unite and rally behind the nominee to unseat President Barack Obama, party officials said.
"As much as the media would like to see tension and divisiveness, it just doesn't happen," Trinque said. "We always get together after the primary. The bottom line is, their slogan is 'Anybody but Obama.' "
Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]