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In Florida, The Early Birds May Be The Deciders

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From Pensacola to Miami, the Republican primary is in full swing. Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are blanketing Florida with rallies and personal appearances. The airwaves are full of campaign ads.

But Jeanne Casserta has heard enough. With several days left to go in the campaign, she stopped by the library in Coral Springs this week to cast her vote. She said she has heard plenty from both the Romney and Gingrich campaigns.

"I don't need to listen to any more speeches," she said. "I just had to follow who I think would be the strongest person to win the primary." And for Casserta, that's Romney.

Coming off his big win in South Carolina, Gingrich has found in Florida a number of challenges that appear to be slowing his momentum.

There's organization and money, of course. Romney has a lot more of both. Those are assets that Florida — with its 10 media markets and its large population — demands. On the air, Romney and a superPAC supporting him have outspent Gingrich and his allies 7 to 1.

Another potential problem for Gingrich is the hundreds of thousands of Florida Republicans who have already voted.

Voting Early

It's easy to cast your vote early in Florida elections, and an increasing number of voters are doing so. In most counties, polls opened last Saturday. Well over 100,000 people have already voted early that way.

Another popular way to vote early is through an absentee ballot. But, as Brian Hughes, a spokesman for Florida's Republican Party, says: "These days, calling it absentee is almost a misnomer. It's almost better to call it vote by mail."

Because of Florida's liberal absentee ballot rules, anyone who chooses can mail in his or her vote. In the 2008 primary, 300,000 Republicans cast absentee ballots. This year, Republican voters are expected to surpass that.

Hughes says it's a sign Florida Republicans are energized — in part because of the state's early primary. "We're a much bigger prize in the early landscape," he says.

A Game Changer?

In Florida, working the early and absentee vote has become an important tactic, even for campaigns at the county commission level. Brett Doster, a Florida Republican strategist working with the Romney campaign, says in primary campaigns, absentee and early voters are critical.

"Primary elections are lower turnout," he says. "So ... the more likely votes for your candidate you can track and get in the bank for the absentee ballot program — or the early voting program — ensures you a greater possibility of success on Election Day."

And this is an area in which Romney has an advantage. The Romney campaign began working in December to follow up with mailers and phone calls to Republicans who requested absentee ballots. By the time the Gingrich campaign turned its attention to Florida, more than 100,000 ballots had already been returned.

When primary day rolls around Tuesday, more than a half-million Floridians — maybe a quarter of the estimated turnout — are likely to have already voted. That's enough to sway an election.

Doster says the case study for this was the 2008 Republican gubernatorial primary in Florida. That's when political newcomer Rick Scott edged out the establishment candidate, Bill McCollum.

"Bill McCollum actually won a plurality of votes on Election Day," Doster recalls. "But Rick Scott had beaten Bill McCollum in the absentees and the early vote. And he ultimately was the winner of that primary."

People who vote early are not influenced by last-minute revelations or momentum shifts that sometimes change the course of campaigns. That may not work in Gingrich's favor.

A survey conducted by the American Research Group found that at the beginning of the week, 17 percent of likely Florida voters had already cast ballots. Within that group, Romney has a 7-point lead over Gingrich.

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