The South Carolina primary is over. Now, time for Florida, and Latino voters, to take center stage in an increasingly acrimonious GOP contest.
The stakes in Florida are high after a surprise first place finish in South Carolina by Newt Gingrich on Saturday to stop Mitt Romney's sprint to the GOP nomination. Returns from 95 percent of South Carolina's precincts showed Gingrich with 41 percent of the vote to 27 percent for Romney. Rick Santorum was winning 17 percent and Ron Paul 13 percent.
Many experts believe that the Florida primary could offer the first glimpse of how the 2012 general election will play out.
For the first time, Hispanic Republicans will get their shot to significantly weigh in on the national race for the GOP nominee. The remaining candidates roll into the Sunshine State, albeit licking their wounds and practicing their best Spanish phrases, with everything at stake in the winner take all state that hands its 50 delegates as the top prize.
Florida has traditionally shown little mercy for campaigns that lack organization in one of the largest and most diverse states in the country. Now, all eyes will be on the Gingrich campaign's ability to overcome financial and organizational disadvantages, as he did in South Carolina, to beat out GOP frontrunner Romney.
"We don't have the kind of money at least one of the candidates has. But we do have ideas. And we do have people," Gingrich, the former House speaker, told a cheering crowd according to the Associated Press. "And we proved here in South Carolina that people power with the right ideas beats big money. And with your help, we're going to prove it again in Florida."
Meanwhile, Romney set a defiant tone at the fairgrounds in South Carolina where he said, "I will compete in every single state." He also took jabs at Gingrich. "Our party can't be led to victory by someone who also has never run a business and never led a state."
Romney last week launched a Spanish-language television ad, in which his son, in flawless Spanish, tells viewers that his father believes in the American Dream and will make sure that the United States remains a land of opportunity.
Meanwhile, Gingrich, has released radio ads accusing Romney of using Castro’s slogan in a speech while labeling him as anti-immigrant. The Romney campaign derided the ads as “ridiculous.”
The tit-for-tat aside, the January 31st primary, pins two of the remaining heavyweights in an all out battle that will shine the spotlight on candidate stances of import to Latinos – the economy, family, and immigration.
Romney is riding endorsements from some of Florida’s major Latino politicians (e.g. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart) and has both the organization and the money to run TV advertisements across the state’s 10 media markets – more than Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina combined --an expensive proposition. Romney's campaign has spent 7 million dollars to date on advertising in the Sunshine State, according to the Associated Press.
Gingrich, however, will be riding his newly found political momentum and more moderate stances on immigration in the hopes of pulling yet another upset victory. While, Romney has the support of the aforementioned politicians, speculation has been brewing that Gingrich may get the endorsement from Florida Senator and Cuban American Marco Rubio.
Rubio, a Tea Party favorite, has said he will remain neutral. But Gingrich has hired his former campaign manager Jose Mallea as his new state director. The Miami based campaign strategist helped steer Rubio's come from behind victory in the 2010 Senate race fueling speculation that the hire could be a sign he'll get Rubio's nod.
Regardless, both candidates will also have to compete without the endorsement of popular former Florida governor Jeb Bush who has told Bloomberg News that he will "stay neutral" in the Republican presidential primary. Bush has described Romney and Gingrich as "credible" candidates in a general election with President Barack Obama.
One thing is for certain, the Florida primary will be the first 2012 contest in which Latino voters play a pivotal role – a role that many believe could be decisive come November. Florida’s diverse age and race demographics means that the state is a direct test of the broader appeal of the candidates across social groups.
The state is 22.5 percent Latino and the Cuban American population in Miami-Dade County leans heavily Republican.
Since the Florida Primary is a closed primary, allowing only registered Republicans to vote, the most influential Latino vote will come from the Cuban American population in South Florida. Puerto Ricans, the second most populous group of Latinos that live primarily in Central Florida, traditionally lean more Democratic.
The 2008 general elections emphasize this point. President Obama won 57 percent of Florida's Hispanic vote eclipsing Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) 42 percent. But Obama could not win the Cuban-American vote. McCain won 53 percent to Obama's 47 percent.
If the Republicans hope to change that result, they will need to figure out a way to attract more Latino voters.
Contains some material from the Associated Press.
Bryan Llenas currently serves as a New York-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC) and a reporter for Fox News Latino (FNL). Click here for more information on Bryan Llenas. Follow him on Twitter @BryanLlenas.