TAMPA — Keep an eye on Florida's electoral map tonight, and you'll see that the Republican presidential primary is a tale of two Mitt Romneys.
There's 2008 Mitt Romney, who campaigned as the conservative alternative to John McCain and won big in conservative northeast Florida and southwest Florida. He lost the state by 5 percentage points after McCain overwhelmingly won more moderate southeast Florida and dominated the counties along the I-4 corridor that make up about half the electorate.
The Mitt Romney of 2012 largely eschews the social conservatism he stressed four years ago and instead focuses on his business acumen and ability to turn around the economy. Nobody calls the former Massachusetts governor the conservative alternative this year, and polls suggest he is poised to win Florida's GOP primary but dramatically redraw his electoral map of four years ago.
If he succeeds and dominates areas of the state where he was weak in 2008, Romney will be well positioned to take Florida's 29 electoral votes in November.
Diverse and vast, Florida politically is like several states in one, and winning requires appealing to a broad array of Republicans. As 67 county elections supervisors tally the votes tonight, keep an eye on five distinct counties that will best tell the tale of Florida's presidential primary:
Pinellas County. The Tampa Bay region accounts for about 26 percent of the primary electorate, more than any other Florida media market, so you could pick almost any Tampa Bay county as a good bellwether. We'll go with Pinellas, Charlie Crist's home county, as a prime example of moderate Republicanism. McCain in 2008 easily beat Romney in Pinellas by 9,000 votes, nearly 8 percentage points.
The Pinellas electorate has a maverick streak, too. Ron Paul received more than 5,000 votes here four years ago, more than any other Florida county. Likewise, Ralph Nader earned more votes in Pinellas than anywhere else in 2000.
This year, Pinellas should be Romney country, and he was wise to target the Republican-rich north county with a visit Monday.
Seminole County. The Orlando media market represents about 21 percent of the primary electorate. Seminole County, home to many suburban commuters who work in Orlando to the south, features decidedly conservative, business-oriented voters with at least one striking claim to fame: Seminole has voted for the Republican nominee in every general election going back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The county became majority Republican in 1984, after decades of voting Republican in presidential elections.
"And that includes voting for (Barry) Goldwater, who was beaten like a mule everywhere across the country," noted Seminole Elections Supervisor Mike Ertel.
Romney — remember, he was the conservative in the race four years ago — beat McCain by about 3 percentage points in Seminole, after building a formidable campaign team that includes a host of local elected officials in his corner. That organization should give him a leg up again this year.
Miami-Dade County. This may be the biggest battleground of the primary and also the best example of how Romney has redrawn his Florida map since 2008. The Miami media market, including Broward and Monroe counties, represents only about 14 percent of the GOP vote, but has seen more visits from the Republican field than anywhere else over the past 10 days.
More than 70 percent of the Miami-Dade Republican vote is Cuban-American, and four years ago Romney finished well behind both McCain and Rudy Giuliani there. More than half of McCain's 97,000-vote margin statewide came from Miami-Dade.
Newt Gingrich based his campaign in Miami and aggressively campaigned for the Hispanic vote there, depicting Romney as anti-immigrant for his hard-line illegal immigration positions. Romney appears to have effectively defused the criticism, thanks to support from popular Cuban-American leaders: U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart and former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and thanks to neutral U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio chastising Gingrich for overheated rhetoric. A Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 Poll showed Romney late last week comfortably ahead of Gingrich in South Florida and with Hispanics.
Duval County. If you watched Thursday's CNN debate in Jacksonville, you heard the crowd sound overwhelmingly pro-Romney. That only makes sense since Romney has worked conservative northeast Florida hard for more than four years and has most of the area's elite money-raisers and veteran party activists in his corner.
But that doesn't mean rank-and-file Republicans will fall in line with the local GOP establishment. Romney won Duval by more than 13,000 votes in 2008 and still has a formidable organization there. But he's not Mr. Conservative this time out, and in this territory sometimes known as south Georgia, Gingrich could be surprisingly strong. The Jacksonville media market represents about 10 percent of the primary vote.
Escambia County. This county has much more in common with nearby Alabama than Miami-Dade. It's a conservative mecca with a large population of veterans and active-duty military, which helped McCain comfortably win four years ago.
Escambia, where Mike Huckabee also took a large chunk of the vote in 2008, is not a natural fit for a patrician Massachusetts politician like Romney. If Gingrich loses Escambia County, it shows he's in serious trouble statewide.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]