Eight days after a super PAC supporting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney unleashed a $3.1 million media blitz in Iowa, the group launched attack ads in Florida costing one-tenth that amount. But the ads are arguably just as significant in beating back rival candidate Newt Gingrich’s surge.
Consider the domino effect of the earliest nominating contests. Just as a Gingrich win in the Jan. 3 caucuses in Iowa could threaten Romney’s longtime edge in New Hampshire one week later, a Gingrich victory in the next major contest — South Carolina — would give him a leg up heading into Florida’s Jan. 31 primary. The former House speaker has the biggest campaign organization in South Carolina, and back-to-back losses there and in Florida would be devastating to the Romney campaign.
Florida has long been viewed as Romney’s firewall, though it’s possible that a muddled verdict in the earliest contests and new delegate-allocation rules could stretch the nominating battle beyond the nation’s biggest swing state.
“We’re used to these campaigns getting wrapped up after Florida, but Mitt Romney is in this race to the end no matter what happens,’’ said Brian Ballard, Florida finance cochairman for the former Massachusetts governor. “I think if we win Florida, it’s over. If we come in second, it’s going to take a little longer."
Signaling that he is not ceding the state to Romney, Gingrich released a list of supporters in all 67 counties on Tuesday that included some of businessman Herman Cain’s former allies. Romney sent out his own list on Wednesday.
Gingrich has posted double-digit leads in every publicly released statewide poll this month. The anti-Gingrich ads appear to be cutting into his support in Iowa, but it’s too soon to see their impact in Florida.
“That we were able to put together such a robust organization, county by county, in such a short time shows the enthusiasm on our side,’’ said Gingrich’s state director, Jose Mallea.
Florida’s primary may seem a long way off compared with the contests looming in Iowa and New Hampshire, but absentee ballots are already going out to military and overseas voters. About 360,000 people have requested absentee ballots so far. Both the Romney and Gingrich campaigns are planning extensive outreach to that captive audience, which has been known to swing elections in the state.
“There’s not another campaign with the financial resources and organizational resources to touch every component of the voting electorate like we will,’’ said Brett Doster, Romney’s state director.
Certainly no other candidate is milking Florida for more money. Romney has set a goal of $5 million by the end of the year. One of his leading surrogates, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, met with top fundraisers in Jacksonville on Tuesday. Another top Romney ally, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, headlined a fundraiser in Palm Beach earlier this month. Romney is expected to be back in Florida for a Jan. 12 reception at the Palm Beach home of Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross.
“Remember, this quarter will be critical for fundraising, as the results will be announced in January when voters are making their decision,’’ John Rood, Romney’s other finance cochairman, said in an e-mail to supporters. “I hope you will consider maxing out if you have not already done so.”
Mobilizing supporters isn’t easy when the candidates are largely absent. In contrast to four years ago, when Florida saw a flurry of candidate visits and television spots, the state is quiet. The Romney super PAC has the airwaves to itself, and there is no Rudy Giuliani hunkered down in the state. Traffic by struggling candidates is outbound: Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman moved his campaign headquarters from Florida to New Hampshire, while Texas Gov. Rick Perry dispatched some Florida staffers to Iowa. None of the other candidates have much of a presence in Florida,although Miami Republican activist Hector Roos has formed a super PAC on Rep. Ron Paul’s behalf.
Another difference from the presidential campaign four years ago is that some of the most prominent Republicans in the state have remained on the sidelines so far. Last-minute endorsements by then-popular Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. Mel Martinez helped John McCain lock down the state in 2008. This cycle, the best-known Republicans — Sen. Marco Rubio, former Gov. Jeb Bush, and Gov. Rick Scott — are all neutral.
“Floridians are perplexed by the whiplash effect of candidates going up and down, and I think we’re in a wait-and-see mode to see what happens in the early primary states," said Ana Navarro, a top Huntsman fundraiser in Miami. “People like to back the winner."