All eyes turn to Florida

With the South Carolina primary having come and gone, leaving us with a surprisingly competitive nomination fight, the stakes in Florida’s Republican presidential primary have reached new heights. A Romney win in the Sunshine State would restore his frontrunner status; a Gingrich victory in Florida would set the stage for a wide-open fight heading into Super Tuesday.

With about nine days to go — the primary is a week from Tuesday — Romney already has some major advantages.

He has led all recent polling in Florida. Between Romney’s campaign and the super PAC supporting him, nearly $7 million has already been spent on television ads aiding the former Massachusetts governor, according to a source. The other candidates have spent almost nothing.

What’s more, Florida voters have been able to vote by absentee ballot since well before Gingrich’s numbers spiked, likely giving an edge to Romney and his get-out-the-vote operation. Republican Party of Florida spokesman Brian Hughes said that 197,271 early and absentee ballots had been cast as of Saturday morning.

Because Romney has enjoyed such a considerable financial edge, his campaign has been able to focus heavily on Florida’s early-voting process and building a strong on-the-ground operation. Much of this was ongoing behind the scenes — while the larger focus was on New Hampshire and South Carolina, Romney staffers were already picking up absentee votes in Florida, giving them a lead before the other campaigns were even trying.

What’s more, money is nearly always the key to competing in the state — because Florida is massive, with a large population and several expensive media markets, the candidate who spends the most tends to do the best.

Then again, Romney looked like the heavy favorite in South Carolina nine days before its primary, too, so we should know better than to start making too many assumptions.

What can Gingrich do to excel over the next nine days? For one thing, it’s time again to keep an eye on the debates — there will be two in Florida this week, and all of the candidates will participate, Romney’s initial balks notwithstanding.

For another keep an eye on some key constituencies, most notably seniors and Hispanic voters. Gingrich has enjoyed considerable support from the former, Romney has taken a variety of steps to alienate the latter, and both are likely to matter quite a bit in Florida between now and Jan. 31.

And finally, keep an eye on Gingrich’s finances. The disgraced former House Speaker benefited in South Carolina from Super PAC support, financed in large part by Sheldon Adelson. Will the far-right casino mogul write an eight-figure check for Florida? It might very well make the difference between winning and losing.