Polls opened early on Tuesday in Florida, where Mitt Romney was pushing for a big win over Newt Gingrich in the race to pick a Republican challenger to President Barack Obama in November.
Polls show Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts Governor, holding a double-digit lead in Florida, the fourth, largest and most diverse State so far to hold a nominating contest. The winner takes all 50 delegates at stake the biggest prize to date in the State-by-State contests leading to the Republican National Convention in August that will select the nominee.
“The winner of Florida is in all likelihood going to be the nominee of our party,” Senator Marco Rubio, arguably the State’s most popular Cuban-American politician, told CNN.
The candidates were quiet on Tuesday morning, with Mr. Romney having no events until the evening.
Mr. Romney has been the front-runner for much of the race, but he suffered a stunning loss to former House of Representatives Speaker Mr. Gingrich in the January 21, 2012 South Carolina primary and has been more aggressive in debates and speeches ever since.
“With a turnout like this, I’m beginning to feel we might win tomorrow,” the newly upbeat Mr. Romney told a crowd on Monday.
Mr. Romney and his allies have poured more than $14 million into Florida television advertising primarily to attack Mr. Gingrich, who has struggled to compete with Mr. Romney’s fundraising ability, staffing and network of high-profile supporters. Mr. Gingrich and his allies spent roughly $3 million on Florida advertising. Mr. Gingrich also faltered in the Florida debates.
The last Florida polls close at 8 p.m. EST (6.30 a.m. IST, Wednesday). Republican officials in the State were anticipating a big turnout, more than 2 million voters, up from a record 1.9 million in the Republican primary in 2008.
After Florida, the pace quickens with seven elections in February, which kicks off with Nevada’s caucuses on Saturday. That will be followed by contests next week in Colorado, Minnesota and Maine as well as a non-binding primary in Missouri. A 17-day break will be capped by primaries in Arizona and Michigan on February 28, 2012.