CHARLES DHARAPAK / AP Enlarge
LM OTERO / AP Enlarge
TAMPA, Fla. - After hammering each other on the economy and national security for a week, all that was left for Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney to do Tuesday was urge their supporters to turnout as voting began in Florida's presidential primary.
The contest could solidify one man as the GOP front-runner. Polls opened at 7 a.m. EST, but more than a million ballots had already been cast, either through the early voting that began Jan. 14 or in absentee ballots returned by mail.
Critical phone calls, negative radio ads, and bitter, personal exchanges marked the final hours before the primary. The contest offers the winner the state's 57 delegates to GOP nominating convention and serves as a gateway to the 20-plus states with nominating contests on Feb. 5.
Recent polls show McCain, the Arizona senator, and Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, in a dead heat; both hope a Florida win will provide a burst of energy heading into the virtual national primary a week later.
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who has lost six straight contests, is seeking a win to remain a viable candidate. But he is far behind in the polls, and a poor showing could force him to abandon his bid. Also lagging is Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who hasn't won since the Iowa caucuses nearly a month ago and hardly competed in Florida.
The contest is so tight that just about any factor could tip the balance.
More so than his rival, Romney has a get-out-the-vote effort as well as early and absentee voting programs. He's spent considerable time and money in the state in the past year. The recent focus on the economy works in his favor; he's been pushing his private-sector credentials and arguing that he's the most capable to turn the country away from the brink of recession.
Conversely, McCain is backed by Florida's top two Republican elected officials, Sen. Mel Martinez and Gov. Charlie Crist, and has endorsements from a slew of Florida newspapers. The former Vietnam prisoner of war also has universal name recognition, as well as ownership of an issue important to the large number of veterans and active military in the state national security.
McCain is expected to do well in areas with a strong military presence Pensacola, Jacksonville, Tampa. He's also hoping for a strong turnout in Miami, with its heavy Cuban-American population, and Orlando, a melting pot. Romney is fighting for the southwest part of the state around Fort Myers and Sarasota; it's much like the Midwest, where he was raised. Another likely stronghold, Palm Beach and Broward County, home to many Northeastern transplants.
Up for grabs is the corridor along Interstate 4 between Tampa and Daytona Beach, a swing area that has seen much growth and is home to roughly two-thirds of the Republican primary vote.27.94653 -82.45927