The outside of a voting precinct in Florida (Randi Rothfield/ Medill)

WASHINGTON— Election day has arrived in Florida, giving Republican voters a chance to decide who they think should represent the party against Barack Obama in the November presidential election. The winner will likely be in the driver’s seat as the campaign heads into the stretch run in battleground states.

While candidates Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are on the Republican Primary ballot, Tuesday’s primary is really a two-man race: former Massachusetts Gov. Romney and Gingrich, onetime speaker of the U.S. House.

As of Tuesday morning RealClearPolitics, which averages all polls in the Florida Primary, showed Romney leading with 41 percent to Gingrich’s 29 percent, 13 percent for Santorum, and 10 percent for Paul.

If Romney wins Florida, some experts say it may effectively end the contest for the nomination. However, both Gingrich and Paul have vowed to keep campaigning until the Republican National Convention in August.

But the upcoming calendar in the Republican campaign suggests February could be a tough month for Gingrich, Paul and Santorum. Romney is favored to win a majority of these states, including Maine, Nevada and Michigan.

“It’s been a rollercoaster ride,” said Peter Feaman, a Florida Republican who has been named to serve on the party’s national committee. “Whoever wins Florida will certainly have a leg up at this point, but who knows how votes are going to go.”

According to the Florida Republican Party, 308,416 absentee ballots have been returned and 283,250 early votes have already been casted. That is about 100,000 more votes than were casted before the 2008 primary day.

“Republicans are absolutely energized,” said Feaman— a description fitting for the Republican campaign so far.

After one month and three different winners in three contests the Republican Primary has been far from predictable.

The winners “represent the fact that the Republican Party is still struggling to figure out who they really are,” said David Redlawsk, co-author of Political Psychology. “The three front runners represent basically the three wings of the Republican Party.”

Santorum, the tea party and social conservative candidate, won Iowa by 34 votes. Romney, the more traditional businessman and moderate conservative swept to victory in New Hampshire. And Gingrich, the insurgent candidate, scored an easy victory in South Carolina.

All about the money

With 50 delegates at stake in this winner-take-all contest, Florida is the largest prize in the campaign thus far. It is different political terrain than South Carolina, New Hampshire or Iowa— all which relied heavily on retail politicking.

“Money becomes more important in Florida because the media market is larger,” said Merle Black, a politics and government professor at Emory University. “It’s just a much bigger and more expensive state to campaign in.”

Sine it’s virtually impossible for candidates to go door-to-door or hold town hall meetings all over the state, candidates in Florida must rely on television and radio advertisements.

“Romney has the advantage because he’s been up and running for a while,” said Black. “He has a huge money advantage and is using it.”

The Romney campaign and his supporting political action committee have been advertising in Florida for weeks, including on Spanish-language television. According to a study by the Wesleyan Media Project, the two entities aired 12,768 ads in Florida compared to the 210 by the Gingrich campaign.

“Romney is clearly running a national campaign while the other candidates are trying to show just enough to get the money to run a national campaign,” said Black.

According to, a non-partisan research website, the Romney campaign has raised more than $32 million. Gingrich and Santorum’s campaigns lag far behind raising only $3 million and $1 million respectively. Ron Paul has campaigned little in the state.

“If you have the money to organize yourself and if you are winning, that translates into the perception that you are unbeatable,” said Black.

But with so many twists and turns in the primary race so far, there’s no ruling out another surprise.

After winning Iowa (or so he thought on caucus night) and New Hampshire, Romney appeared to be the Republican front-runner until Iowa officials certified the vote count. Instead of leading by eight votes, Romney ended up trailing Santorum by 34 votes.

“Nothing is guaranteed in politics,” said Chip Felkel, a South Carolina political strategist. “It is all about how you perform.”

Debating the difference

Over the course of this Republican primary, candidates rise and fall in part based on their debate performances.

Gingrich overcame a double-digit deficit in the polls to win the South Carolina primary after two strong debate performances. However, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the race after poor debate performances.

“They [debates] give people the opportunity to really focus on candidates in the spotlight and how they handle these issues,” said Felkel. “They are almost like the closing arguments that campaigns and candidates make to voters in those particular states.”

Through 19 debates, it’s been fight after fight for the Republicans—  especially in Florida where voters would like to see less feuding, said Feaman.

“At the beginning of this campaign, the tenor was positive and I think focused on the issues as it should be,” Florida Republican Feaman said, “But it started to go negative and people in Florida are no different then the rest of the country, which is they do not like negative campaigning.”

Both Romney and Gingrich hit the airwaves hard with negative advertisements. Gingrich accused Romney of being dishonest, while Romney continually attacked Gingrich’s ability to lead.

While this negativity worries many within the party Doug Heye, former communications director for the Republican National Committee, called it a natural progression.

“The fact that the 2008 Clinton-Obama primary and campaign went so long, went so negative, went so personal would have never led most people to believe there was a way the Democrats could unite in November,” said Heye. “But they did.”

Heye said the Republicans candidates will also eventually join forces.

“At the end of the day the Republican candidates are going to be awfully motivated to remove Barack Obama from office,” he said.

The Republican Party has already seen opposing forces come together. Former Utah Gov. John Huntsman dropped out of the race days before the South Carolina primary to endorse Romney. Former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain and Perry have endorsed Gingrich.

Looking ahead

While the number of delegates at stake— 50 in all—makes Florida important, experts say it is not necessarily a deal-breaker. The eventual nominee will need 1,144 to claim the party’s mantle.

“There is certainly potential that this will be a long race,” said Heye. “But it’s a good thing because it will not only produce a nominee but will also be good for the party on the ground.”

The next chapter in the Republican primary begins almost immediately with seven contests in February. Nevada is the first state and is friendly turf for Romney, who won it in 2008.

“Being a Mormon in states like South Carolina and Iowa may have hurt Romney, but here in Nevada it is just the opposite,” said Eric Herzik, the political science department chairman at the University of Nevada. “It helped him in the 2008 election and probably will help him again this year.”

While Romney enjoys a slight advantage in Nevada, a caucus state, Gingrich’s campaign is struggling to build an organization needed for the state-by-state progression of primaries.

“His organization was formed so late so it is hard to say how effective it will be, particularly because Romney’s organization has been here for a while,” said Herzik.

On Feb. 7 Missouri has a primary and Colorado and Minnesota hold caucuses. Then there’s a 17-day break before the Arizona and Michigan primaries— two states where Romney continues to lead.

“Arizona also has a significant Mormon population and Michigan is Romney’s hometown, so I think it’s a no-brainer,” said Herzik. “It will be very hard for the other candidates to compete with him here.”

February could be the month that weakens Gingrich’s campaign before Super Tuesday on March 6. However, his campaign staff says they expect Gingrich to come out strong in Georgia— his home state— Tennessee and Alaska, several of the races that make up Super Tuesday.