Mitt Romney is blanketing Florida with ads and mailers. Newt Gingrich is planning a Miami-Orlando trip next week. Ron Paul is sending out fliers.
The Republican presidential race for Florida is kicking into high gear.
As the nation's biggest and most-diverse swing state, Florida has more Electoral College votes than Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina combined. Without it, Republicans probably can't win the White House.
Romney's win Tuesday night in Iowa made the Florida stakes even higher. It all but ensures that most of his rivals would not survive a Jan. 31 victory in Florida by Romney if he lives up to expectations and wins New Hampshire.
"Florida could become Mitt Romney's firewall," said Greg Mueller, president of the conservative CRC Public Relations firm, who worked for Florida Gov. Rick Scott's campaign as well as the presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan in 1996 and Steve Forbes in 2000.
"A Florida win by anyone other than Romney," said Mueller, "would be a big boost for a conservative challenger, who would be catapulted into the South, which is loaded with conservative evangelical tea party voters who aren't really Mitt Romney voters."
Mueller said the withdrawal of Rep. Michele Bachmann on Wednesday from the race should give a boost to Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry or former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Mueller said fewer conservative candidates, who are fragmenting the vote, means more trouble for Romney, especially in South Carolina.
South Carolina holds its primary Jan. 21, the same day early voting begins in Florida. The winner there will have momentum and media attention heading into Florida. That makes South Carolina a key to remaining competitive in Florida, just as winning Florida is a key to winning the national race.
Kevin Hall, a GOP consultant who has advised South Carolina's current and former governor as well as Sen. Jim DeMint, said Romney has a good shot in his state as well. He said successful South Carolina politicians run as business candidates, not firebrands waging a "culture war" against abortion or gay rights.
"That's the unifying theme: fiscal conservatism," said Hall, who's neutral in the race. "That's why McCain won here. Romney is okay on that score. He can pull from someone who is identified with another adjective, such as evangelical or rural."
Perry appears to be the only candidate advertising in South Carolina.
Romney is the first and only presidential candidate advertising in Florida so far. His commercial, a positive biography spot, began airing Wednesday in nine of the 10 major Florida television markets. Estimated cost: $825,000. The ad is scheduled to run so that the average TV viewer sees it seven times. Romney isn't advertising in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale media market, the most expensive in the state.
Television is king in a state as big as Florida. Aside from ads, the televised debates have shaped the race. There are two more debates in New Hampshire this weekend and two Florida debates are scheduled, including a Tampa Bay Times/NBC debate in Tampa on Jan. 23.
Romney's campaign isn't just going on television. It's the only one that appears to be mailing all of the 401,000 Florida Republicans who have requested an absentee ballot as of Wednesday. Robocalls to spur voters to cast ballots early won't be far behind.
Gingrich's campaign has started phoning some Miami-area voters to get them to cast early ballots, but so far it hasn't sent any mail pieces. He's hosting a fundraiser Jan. 12 in Coral Gables and opening an Orlando headquarters the following day. Romney is holding a Jan. 12 fundraiser in Palm Beach.
Romney's campaign has sent out thousands of mailers to reliable Florida Republican voters. Rep. Paul's campaign appears to have started mailing to Florida Republicans as well, and with a small but devoted following in Florida, Paul is starting to rack up straw poll victories in Florida.
In 2008, Romney dropped out of the race after losing Florida to the eventual GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain. Romney got 31 percent; McCain, 36 percent. Paul garnered only 3 percent.
Santorum, who came in second in Iowa, is so low on money and has so small an organization that it would be tough for him to win Florida. Perry, who came in a disappointing fifth place in Iowa, has a solid Florida campaign team and does have enough money to be competitive in the state.
"We are running our Florida game plan regardless of what's happening in the other states," said Romney's Florida senior adviser, Brett Doster. "Florida is its own campaign."