Reporting Tim Kephart
MIAMI (CBSMiami) – After a week of hard campaigning, election day has finally arrived in the Sunshine State.
“I think it’s important to make a decision on who our next president will be,” said voter Victor Mendelson.
Republicans in Florida are cast their vote for one of four candidates to eventually face President Barack Obama in the November general election.
The four candidates are: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul.
“I think there are some people that we absolutely don’t want in the White House,” said voter Nancy Hopwood. “So we want to make sure we vote the best we can to have our voice heard.”
The race broke down to essentially a two-man race in the past week between Romney and Gingrich. Romney used two solid debate performances to move to the top of the GOP field in the final days.
In polls taken the day before the election Romney’s lead ranged anywhere from five points to as much as 20 points.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday, Romney had a 43-29 percent lead over Newt Gingrich among likely Florida Republican voters.
The poll found seven percent were undecided, but 24 percent could still change their mind.
“I wanted to understand a lot more about the candidates and who had a better shot at prevailing in November,” said Mendelson.
Romney is even pulling away from groups that many have long thought Gingrich would easily win. The poll found Romney leading among self-described conservatives, white evangelical voters, and self-described tea party members.
Other polls of early voters showed Romney with an even larger lead heading into election day, making Gingrich’s chances of pulling off an upset victory even tougher.
In Miami-Dade County, more than 24,000 residents voted early while the election department sent out 133,000 absentee ballots with 69,000 being returned.
“There is excitement among the votes,” said Penelope Townsley of the Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections. “Comparable election turnout has been about 7 percent, and we’ve exceeded that.”
But the other two candidates in the Republican field could hold the key to the eventual nomination. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul gave up Florida early and moved on to other cheaper states.
Santorum’s campaign has split the conservative vote in the Republican Party, which would typically support Gingrich.
Paul is siphoning off young voters and could put together an independent campaign if his quest for the Republican nomination comes up short.
Romney’s path in Florida has taken a similar trajectory to that of his campaign in Iowa. In Iowa, Romney had to withstand a Gingrich surge to eventually tie Santorum in the state.
But, in the end, Romney was able to hold off Gingrich by throwing millions of dollars in attack ads at him in the state.
In Florida, Romney was struggling before his campaign, and a Super PAC aligned with his campaign, began flooding Florida airwaves with attack ads.
Romney has outspent Gingrich by as much as 5-1 according to some reports, and it appears it will pay off in the end.
It’s not just Republicans who will hit the polls Tuesday. Multiple local issues and offices are up for grabs Tuesday. For more on those issues, click here.
But, the nation will be watching the GOP Presidential primary for both the turnout and to see who the eventual winner will be.
Based on early voting and absentee ballot numbers, Republican experts believe turnout will be in the neighborhood of 1.5 million Tuesday.
The winner in the Florida primary will likely be in the driver’s seat heading into the next states, including Saturday’s Nevada caucuses. Romney has already started advertising in Nevada.
After Nevada, the next states set to cast their votes are: Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Arizona, Michigan, Washington, and then Super Tuesday on March 6, 2012.