As Florida Republicans prepare to go to the polls tomorrow, the state has become a battle between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, with Ron Paul and Rick Santorum essentially ceding the Sunshine State to one of the two men. The latest numbers from Public Policy Polling show Romney with a healthy 39% to 32% lead over Gingrich and Santorum and Paul well behind at 14% and 11% respectively.
Florida can play an important role depending on the outcome tomorrow, but it is not likely to be decisive and end the race. What to look for from each of the candidates:
Mitt Romney – Romney clearly moves on after Florida, and if he wins decisively will recapture a lot of momentum and continue to solidify his status as the eventual nominee. A loss in Florida at this point would be devastating for his campaign and he would be in major damage control to get his campaign back on track. That said, most polls show Romney winning relatively easy with a seven- to 10-point margin.
Newt Gingrich – Gingrich is a bit of a wild card in this race. After South Carolina the first Florida polls showed him leading Romney, but the past week of campaigning in Florida has taken its toll and he heads into the primary tomorrow as the likely second-place finisher. If this campaign season has taught us anything though, it’s not to count out Gingrich. Newt will almost certainly fight on through Super Tuesday and could very well make good on his promises to fight it out until the convention. A double-digit loss to Romney would pretty a pretty serious dent in his momentum, though.
Rick Santorum – It’s hard to see how Santorum has any path to the nomination at this point, and a third- or fourth-place finish in Florida will not help him at all. Any momentum he may have captured after Iowa has been lost. Santorum will likely be the next candidate to drop out of the race, but when he does it is unclear. He could possibly drop out after a weak finish in Florida, and if he were to endorse Gingrich it would continue to feed the narrative that conservatives are unhappy with Romney and willing to rally around Gingrich. It seems likely that Santorum will stay in the fight for another couple weeks, maybe even through Super Tuesday, but he will most likely continue to be the third of fourth wheel moving forward.
Ron Paul – Paul was never really competing in Florida and so the outcome there will have no real impact on his campaign. Instead of campaigning in Florida this weekend, Paul was in Maine courting voters ahead of that state’s Feb. 4-11 caucuses.
The next state on the list is Nevada on Feb. 4. It will be interesting to see who is still in the race for Super Tuesday on Mar. 6.