Once mocked as "The 25 Percent Man" due to his poll numbers, Mitt Romney can now boast he's leading the GOP presidential race in Florida, where a new poll shows him earning more than a third of the vote.
Romney pulls in 36 percent, a double-digit lead over Newt Gingrich, who has 24 percent, according to a survey of self-described likely Republican voters conducted by Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University.
The poll shows Rick Santorum is a distant third, with 16 percent. Ron Paul is at 10 percent. Rick Perry gets 5 percent of the vote and Jon Huntsman pulls in only 2 percent.
Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said the race is far from over. The Florida primary is Jan. 31, 10 days after South Carolina's vote. New Hampshire votes Tuesday.
Also, Romney's lead isn't solid.
"With more than half of voters saying they might change their minds and more than 50 percent of them backing candidates perceived as more conservative," Brown said in a written statement, "Romney could be vulnerable if those voters settle on one candidate."
Democrats clearly see Romney as the likely winner. President Barack Obama's campaign adviser, David Axelrod, hosted a conference call last week to bash Romney after he narrowly won the Iowa vote. During the call, Axelrod noted Romney could only earn about a quarter of the vote, making him "The 25 Percent Man."
If the Republican election so far is any indication, it's unlikely conservatives will gel around another candidate. Hard-core conservatives haven't united around a candidate yet. And Romney looks like he'll win New Hampshire and will finish close to the top in South Carolina. If so, that will give Romney a 3-0 record heading into Florida, a big state where television drives the electorate and momentum matters.
It's expensive to run in Florida, where a campaign can easily spend $10 million on TV ads in a week.
As a result, Paul's team has all but decided to do almost no campaigning in Florida. The state would have been more of a prize if it had the full 100 Republican National Committee delegates who would cast votes for the Florida winner during the party's August convention in Tampa, where the nominee is technically crowned.
But Florida decided to host its primary early, breaking RNC rules and stripping the state of half its delegates.
"Dr. Paul has many wonderful supporters in Florida. He will compete there and do well. However, with the delegate penalization, and Florida becoming winner take all with only 50 delegates, we will spend limited money there and stick largely to grass roots campaigning," said Paul's campaign manager, Jesse Benton. "Our campaign will focus financial resources on South Carolina, Nevada, Maine and other states heading into Super Tuesday."
There's another good reason for Paul to skip Florida: Republican voters here have a more negative impression of him than a positive one, according to the Quinnipiac poll.
Only 34 percent of Republican voters here view him favorably while 47 percent have an unfavorable view. Romney is the best-liked, with 73 percent holding a favorable opinion. Only 14 percent have a negative impression. The poll's error margin is 4.1 percent for the 560 Republicans polled.
Romney also has more money and a better organization than his rivals. On Sunday, he announced the support of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a popular figure in the state GOP.
Romney and a secretive political committee are bombarding Florida airwaves with TV ads, and he's expected to start advertising soon on Spanish-language TV and radio to court Cuban-American voters, 72 percent of the Republican voters registered in the largest county in Florida, Miami-Dade.
Meantime, Romney has mailed many of the 410,000 Republicans who have requested an absentee ballot to vote early. Perry has robo-called some of the voters. Paul mailed some of them, too. Gingrich is expected to start soon.
This isn't the death knell of Paul's campaign. Nor does all this mean Romney will win Florida, let alone defeat Obama in November.
Mike Huckabee in 2008 essentially skipped Florida, which killed Mitt Romney's campaign and essentially made John McCain the Republican nominee. Huckabee stuck around through the Super Tuesday states and was the last major GOP candidate to bow out.
Does skipping Florida mean a candidate can't win in November? Nope. In 2008, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton refused to campaign here due to Democratic National Committee rules that penalized Florida for having an early primary. Obama lost to Clinton. And McCain won the state in his primary. But Obama won here in the general election.