MIAMI (CBSMiami.com) – After the final vote was counted in the Iowa caucuses Tuesday night and the race was essentially a tie, it vaulted Florida’s primary on January 31st into the key position of possibly determining the eventual GOP nominee.
“The big winners last night were the voters of Florida, because now Florida takes on even greater importance,” said political pollster and analyst Fernand Amandi of the firm Bendixen and Amandi.
“The voters of Florida are now poised to potentially determine who the Republican candidate for president is going to be,” Amandi told CBS4’s Gary Nelson.
If next Tuesday’s vote in New Hampshire goes to Romney, as expected, and a more conservative candidate prevails in the South Carolina, it could leave Florida in a position to break the ideological tie.
The question looming now: Can Florida Republicans be swayed to give any candidate a convincing win. The most recent polling shows Romney and Newt Gingrich in a dead heat in the state, but with most voters responding as undecided.
Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum both finished with 25 percent of the votes in Iowa and ended the night separated by just eight votes.
The race in Iowa broke down to the conservative wings of the Republican Party siding with Romney and the most conservative base of the GOP overwhelmingly supporting Santorum.
Just 14 percent of the caucus-goes who said they were “very conservative” supported Romney. In addition, just 14 percent of evangelical Christians supported Romney.
The finish in Iowa also will likely knock out the other two candidates who would be siphoning off votes from Santorum’s base.
But even more dangerous for Romney, 40 percent of those who supported him said they had reservations about him, according to slate.com.
Texas Governor Rick Perry Wednesday decided to skip a campaign effort in New Hampshire and head directly to South Carolina, believed ripe to go with a strong conservative. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann dropped out of the race on Wednesday.
Both Perry and Bachmann appealed to the conservative base of the party and if a majority of their supporters join up with Santorum; it could give the expected-nominee Mitt Romney, a large problem heading out of New Hampshire.
Romney is expected to easily win New Hampshire and then face a battle between Newt Gingrich and Santorum in South Carolina.
Those states don’t carry the weight on the national scene like Florida does and Florida is set to be the deciding state early in the race.
For the Florida GOP, it justifies the move to push the states primary so early in the year, a claim that was made by state legislators when the date was set for January 31.
“Florida now is set to play a major role in this campaign,” said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congresswoman from Miami-Dade.
Ros-Lehtinen is a Romney supporter and believes he will come on strong with Florida voters.
“The more they study the candidates, I think the better Mitt’s going to look,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “If not, you have to dance with the ones that brung ya. Whoever the Republicans pick, I’m going to be there with that candidate.”
A protracted, potentially bitter GOP primary season could hurt the Republicans in November.
“A long, divisive primary, without the Republican party coalescing around a front-runner, bodes best for the president right now,” said the pollster Amandi.
For the candidates left, they must quickly begin pouring millions of dollars in advertising into the state to establish a media presence.
Mitt Romney will have to make a persuasive case quickly to the tea party hotbeds in the I-4 corridor from Orlando to Tampa to win Florida.
He was polling roughly even with Newt Gingrich before Gingrich fell out of favor with Iowa voters thanks to millions spent on attack ads against the former Speaker of the House.
The last polling done in Florida was before the Santorum surge and until more polling is done, it’s unknown whether Sunshine State voters will support Santorum in large waves.
The problem for Romney heading into Florida is that he and Super PAC’s that support him spent millions of dollars in Iowa and at the end of the night; he lost a few votes from when he ran in 2008.
There is also the Newt Gingrich factor. He finished poorly in Iowa, but he still has plenty of money to unload plenty of ads against Romney before he would have to leave the race.
Plus, he held a large lead in South Carolina during the latest polling from the Palmetto State.
Romney did get a shot-in-the-arm after his disappointing Iowa finish when Senator John McCain endorsed him. But, McCain wasn’t well-received among very conservative voters and it’s unknown whether this will help him with the ultra conservative base.
Florida’s place in the 2012 GOP Primary season has become the most crucial early test outside of Super Tuesday in March. It could come down to a battle between Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum.
The late-Tim Russert summed up presidential elections best: “It’s all about Florida.”