TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Four years ago, Florida crushed Mitt Romney's presidential ambitions. This time, the GOP front-runner is working to ensure the state seals his nomination — regardless of what happens in South Carolina's primary on Saturday.
The Romney political machine has been grinding here for months. The former Massachusetts governor has been aggressively courting absentee voters, blanketing the state's television airwaves and wooing local evangelical leaders.
"Romney has been here and established longer than any other presidential candidate that's running on the Republican ticket," said Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who hasn't endorsed anyone in the race. "He has the money and the organization and that's always an advantage."
It's especially an advantage in Florida, which has its primary on Jan. 31.
Romney's big push here is partly out of necessity, given that there's lingering distrust among the state's conservative voters over his candidacy. But while shoe leather and town hall-style meetings may be the mark of successful campaigns in the first two voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, the logistics of running for president in Florida — a state roughly the size of six New Hampshires with double the combined populations of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — require the kind of organization and money that only Romney appears to possess.
His Florida team has been making phone calls and knocking on doors since last September. He and his allies have been running television ads here for almost a month. No other campaign is on the air.
To date, Romney's campaign has spent $2.3 million on Florida television advertising, including videos promoting his business credentials in English and Spanish. And the pro-Romney political action committee, Restore Our Future, has spent an additional $4 million so far on Florida television, most recently for an ad to attack rival Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who is a favorite among some of the state's evangelical voters.
Santorum has little ability to fight back here. He announced the hiring of a Florida staff just last week. And his campaign released the endorsement of a lone prominent social conservative on Tuesday.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is running second to Romney is most Florida polls. He has no television presence but does have a staff of 14 with a growing network of volunteers across the state. With absentee voting already well under way, it's hardly clear that that will be enough to compete with Romney, who holds a double-digit lead in recent surveys.
Roughly 460,000 Republican absentee ballots have already been mailed — to military personnel, overseas residents and other Floridians — and about 120,000 have been returned in a state that has 4 million registered Republican voters. Romney's campaign has implemented a program to contact each of the absentee voters, first by mail and then with follow up phone calls and personal visits from volunteers.
The other campaigns have barely opened offices.
Romney also has captured the endorsements of many of the state's leading Republicans, although Gov. Rick Scott — who initially indicated he was leaning toward Texas Gov. Rick Perry — has remained uncommitted. Some of the support remains from Romney's first run four years ago, when he finished 5 points behind Sen. John McCain in a Florida primary that would largely push him out of the race.
A noticeable confidence has emerged inside Romney's Tampa headquarters after back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire as well as a commanding standing in South Carolina.
"If you look at what the other guys are trying to do in Florida, I really think it's the difference between someone trying to play at the Super Bowl level versus someone trying to put together a sandlot football team on the fly," said Romney's top Florida strategist, Brett Doster.
Despite that posture, some conservatives here remain wary of a Romney candidacy.
"They don't believe him to be a true conservative," said Sherri Ortega, a committee woman for the Suwannee County Republican Party who counts herself a skeptic partly because of the health care overhaul Romney signed into law in Massachusetts. "It's just how I see it."
Recognizing weakness among the state's vocal evangelical voters, the Romney campaign months ago established a coalition of social conservatives who host weekly conference calls. It's a group that includes former leaders from the Christian Coalition, who help sell Romney's conservatives credentials to the voting bloc known as "values voters."
Romney's Mormon faith is still an issue for some local Christians, according to Robert Skura, a 49-year-old roofing contractor from Altamonte Springs.
"We're pretty conservative down here in Florida," said Skura, who's been a Romney supporter since meeting him at a campaign stop four years ago. "But you're not going to get Jesus Christ himself to run for president."
Conservatives here seem to have the same concerns of their counterparts in Iowa and New Hampshire. And Romney won those contests, largely because his opponents struggled to unite anti-Romney conservatives and prove they could assemble an organization capable of defeating President Barack Obama next fall. Indeed, electability has emerged as a top concern among Republican voters like Ortega and Skura.
"It's essential. Anybody but Obama," Ortega said.
Skura agreed while standing at a Romney rally at an Orlando pizza parlor this week. After eating free pizza and making sure the campaign had his name and contact information, Skura left holding a Romney lawn sign.