It's showtime!After more than a week of debates, countless miles crisscrossing the Sunshine State and blanketing the airwaves with ads in English and Spanish, the Republican presidential candidates finally find out who loves them in the biggest primary of the race so far.
And this time, for the first time in this wild roller-coaster ride of a nomination race, Latinos matter.
The stakes are huge, especially in this race, where there have been three bruising brawls and three different winners.
Rick Santorum won the Iowa Caucus (although it took weeks to know it) thanks to the socially conservative Evangelicals. Mitt Romney won the New Hampshire primary thanks to the more moderate Republicans there. (It also happens to be the state next to the one he used to be governor of, so the real news would have been if he somehow managed to lose there.) And Newt Gingrich won South Carolina's primary thanks to proud, Tell- Those-Washington-Yankees-to-Keep-Their-Noses-Out- of-Our-Business Southerners in what happens to be the state next to the one Gingrich represented in Congress for 20 years.
Florida is the first state where Hispanics will make a (possibly huge) difference.
The candidates know it. Gingrich came to Calle Ocho in Miami's Little Havana, sipped cafecito and called for a "Cuban Spring." Romney carved lechon in Hialeah and trotted out his youngest son, Craig, to say a few words "en Espaņol, si." They both supported a statehood vote in front of Puerto Rican voters in Central Florida.
Santorum and Ron Paul have both pretty much skipped Florida, dedicating their time and money to upcoming fights in Colorado, Maine and Nevada.
The two frontrunners, though, have been duking it out across Florida, sometimes appearing within minutes of each other at the same place, before the same folks. (For a refresher, see our story about Gingrich and Romney giving their immigration speeches last Friday at the Hispanic Leadership Network conference in Doral.)
Romney surely knows how vital the Latino vote is. In 2008, he lost the Florida primary to Sen. John McCain by 97,000 votes. Nearly 52,000 of those votes were cast in South Florida, where Hispanics account for nearly three out of every four registered Republicans. Overall, McCain got 51 percent of the Latino vote in Florida. Romney got 15.
He doesn't want to let that happen again.
The stakes are too high. Florida is the first "winner-take-all" state. Even after it got punished by GOP elders for moving its primary up to January, the Sunshine State will still deliver more delegates to the winner of Tuesday's vote than New Hampshire and South Carolina combined. (There's a chance that could change at the convention in August, but for now anyway.) That means that whoever wins, by even a single vote, gets 50 delegates.
Both frontrunners are acutely aware that Hispanics represent about 11 percent of the state's registered Republicans, more than enough to sway the outcome.
And both also know that the latest polls on Monday put Romney ahead by somewhere between about 8 and 14 points. A Latino Decisions poll from last Wednesday showed him leading by double digits among Hispanic likely voters. But one out of five were still undecided.
So, today, even as voters cast their ballots and the results come rolling in, the two are making their last pitches and watching closely to see how Latinos vote. Because it matters.
Source: Terra/Carlos Harrison