MEDLEY, Fla. — If there's any Republican presidential candidate who can afford to spend precious time and money focusing on winning in Florida, it's the one campaigning here Tuesday.
While others focus on Iowa's caucuses or the early primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Mitt Romney is set to spend the day in the state welcoming endorsements from three top Cuban-American Republicans, attending several fundraisers and visiting the port in Tampa to discuss trade policy.
It's the only early primary state Romney's visiting this week, little more than a month before voters start weighing in on the GOP nominating contest.
Contrast that with his rivals, who have spent most of primary campaign jockeying to become the consensus conservative alternative to the former Massachusetts governor — and probably need to win at least one earlier-than-Florida primary to stand a chance of competing with Romney. Florida votes Jan. 31 and is likely to play a key role in deciding the GOP nominee.
Newt Gingrich is spending three days in South Carolina this week. Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman are campaigning in New Hampshire. Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann are both in Iowa. Herman Cain is scheduled to make stops in Michigan and Ohio, though his campaign is now battling new accusations that he had an extramarital affair.
"It's almost like every other campaign is focused on this slingshot strategy with having to win one or two other states and then coming into Florida with momentum," said Brett Doster, who ran former President George W. Bush's reelection campaign in Florida and is now advising Romney.
The mechanics of winning here play directly to Romney's strengths at a candidate. He's shown discomfort with the hand-to-hand retail politicking that's critical in other early states but isn't effective in a state of nearly 19 million people. He's sitting on the kind of cash it takes to run TV ads here — nearly $1.5 million per week for a buy in all 10 of the state's media markets — and keep raising it.
But part of his effort reflects an acknowledgment that Romney's vulnerabilities mean he can't afford to neglect the state. While he has a significant lead in New Hampshire, he's vulnerable in Iowa and South Carolina. His top advisers have long said performing well in Florida is critical for his campaign.
Almost all of Romney's rivals, on the other hand, acknowledge they're barely thinking about the Sunshine State.
"This race hasn't come to Florida yet," said Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond. Gingrich's first priority is South Carolina, where he's hired nearly a dozen staffers and opened several campaign offices.
"Iowa and New Hampshire and the earliest states are priorities for the governor's time and our campaign," said Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan.
"We felt all along that Iowa was going to be our priority from day number one," said Bachmann spokeswoman Alice Stewart. "As to when and how we campaign in Florida will be decided after the caucuses."
Most of the Republican field did gather here for three days of events surrounding a debate and a straw poll at the end of September. But since then, Bachmann and Perry haven't come back for public events. Huntsman moved his campaign headquarters from Orlando to Manchester, N.H.
Cain, who won the straw poll, was in Miami earlier this month, where he visited a restaurant in Little Havana that's a frequent stop for political candidates. But he's dogged by allegations of sexual harassment and now an extramarital affair, and has suffered in polls for it.
The straw poll was a setback for Perry. Still, he pays a staff of 11 in the state and has worked to cultivate relationships with tea party leaders. He's also hired a national campaign team that has significant Florida experience, including several members of the team that elected Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 210. But Perry hasn't been back since September, and a series of bad debate performances have hampered his fundraising and ability to compete here.
Romney didn't officially compete in the poll, though he attended the debate. He has five paid staffers working for him out of a state campaign headquarters in Tampa — also the site of the Republican National Convention next summer. He's campaigned here periodically since announcing his candidacy in June.
He will spend Tuesday morning accepting endorsements from Florida Reps. Ileana Ros Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart. All three are key leaders in the Cuban American community, a critical constituency in South Florida. Taken together, the endorsements help contribute to the perception that Romney is the inevitable GOP nominee.
Also Tuesday, Romney will attend a fundraiser in Naples and make remarks on trade policy at the port in Tampa.
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