After more than a week of debates, countless milescrisscrossing the Sunshine State and blanketingthe airwaves with ads in English and Spanish, theRepublican presidential candidates finally findout who loves them in the biggest primary of therace so far.
And this time, for the first time in thiswild roller-coaster ride of a nomination race,Latinos matter.
The stakes are huge, especially in thisrace, where there have been three bruising brawlsand three different winners.
Rick Santorum won the Iowa Caucus(although it took weeks to know it) thanks to thesocially conservative Evangelicals. Mitt Romneywon the New Hampshire primary thanks to the moremoderate Republicans there. (It also happens to bethe state next to the one he used to be governorof, so the real news would have been if he somehowmanaged to lose there.) And Newt Gingrich wonSouth Carolina's primary thanks to proud, Tell-Those-Washington-Yankees-to-Keep-Their-Noses-Out-of-Our-Business Southerners in what happens to bethe state next to the one Gingrich represented inCongress for 20 years.
Florida is the first state where Hispanicswill make a (possibly huge) difference.
The candidates know it. Gingrich came toCalle Ocho in Miami's Little Havana, sippedcafecito and called for a "Cuban Spring." Romneycarved lechon in Hialeah and trotted out hisyoungest son, Craig, to say a few words "enEspañol, si." They both supported a statehood votein front of Puerto Rican voters in CentralFlorida.
Santorum and Ron Paul have both prettymuch skipped Florida, dedicating their time andmoney to upcoming fights in Colorado, Maine andNevada.
The two frontrunners, though, have beenduking it out across Florida, sometimes appearingwithin minutes of each other at the same place,before the same folks. (For a refresher, see ourstory about Gingrich and Romney giving theirimmigration speeches last Friday at the HispanicLeadership Network conference in Doral.)
Romney surely knows how vital the Latino vote is.In 2008, he lost the Florida primary to Sen. JohnMcCain by 97,000 votes. Nearly 52,000 of thosevotes were cast in South Florida, where Hispanicsaccount for nearly three out of every fourregistered Republicans. Overall, McCain got 51percent of the Latino vote in Florida. Romney got15.
He doesn't want to let that happen again.
The stakes are too high. Florida is thefirst "winner-take-all" state. Even after it gotpunished by GOP elders for moving its primary upto January, the Sunshine State will still delivermore delegates to the winner of Tuesday's votethan New Hampshire and South Carolina combined.(There's a chance that could change at theconvention in August, but for now anyway.) Thatmeans that whoever wins, by even a single vote,gets 50 delegates.
Both frontrunners are acutely aware thatHispanics represent about 11 percent of thestate's registered Republicans, more than enoughto sway the outcome.
And both also know that the latest pollson Monday put Romney ahead by somewhere betweenabout 8 and 14 points. A Latino Decisions pollfrom last Wednesday showed him leading by doubledigits among Hispanic likely voters. But one outof five were still undecided.
So, today, even as voters cast theirballots and the results come rolling in, the twoare making their last pitches and watching closelyto see how Latinos vote. Because it matters.