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Why the 2012 election could all come down to Florida

The nation's premier swing state, younger and more diverse than you think, will be vital in deciding who wins the White House. Along the way, Florida could determine the GOP primary, too. 

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Nearly four years later, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has burst forth into a commanding lead in polls of Florida Republicans – threatening to dash Mr. Romney's hopes once again. But talk to Florida tea partyers, who remain well organized around the state, and they're more animated by the prospect of defeating Obama than by coalescing around any one candidate.

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"I'm for anybody but Obama – anybody who's for limited government," says Vinny Iannuzzi, who owns a pool maintenance company in Naples and is a tea party regular.

Tea party activists are famously unenthusiastic about Romney. But the latest general election numbers out of Florida from the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling (PPP) might give people like Mr. Iannuzzi pause. If the GOP nominates Mr. Gingrich, Obama would win Florida, 50 percent to 44 percent. If the party nominates the more moderate Romney, Obama would probably lose Florida, PPP suggests.

But with just a few weeks to go before the start of primary season, the GOP nomination race remains fluid. Neither party is assuming anything but a close outcome in the general election next November – and in Florida, critical voter groups are easy to spot: Hispanics, retirees, under-30s, suburban women, Jewish voters.

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Luz Gaviria is one busy woman. She runs a Colombian restaurant – including waiting tables – that she and her husband own in the middle-class West Kendall neighborhood of Miami and has an 11-year-old daughter. After 18 years in the country, she's just become an American citizen.

"This is my first election," says Ms. Gaviria, a registered independent. When asked how she's leaning, she offers a soft endorsement of Obama: "He's good, but I haven't had a chance to check out the others."

Voters like Gaviria make the Democrats nervous. Even if she sticks with Obama, will she actually go to the polls? Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority in the nation, and the president needs to maximize their turnout to make up for declines in support from other groups, such as working-class whites. In 2008, Obama won two-thirds of the Hispanic vote nationwide and 57 percent in Florida.

In the lower-turnout 2010 midterms, Hispanics still voted Democratic nationally, but in Florida they went Republican, favoring Rick Scott for governor and the Cuban-American Marco Rubio for Senate. The difference: the state's substantial Cuban-American population, whose older community in particular tilts Republican and votes reliably.

In 2012, Florida's burgeoning Hispanic vote could decide the state, and the national party committees know it: They both started running Spanish-language TV ads last summer. But on the ground, the Democrats are a step ahead. The Obama campaign in Florida is already knocking on doors and running Spanish-language phone banks. In March, the Florida Democratic Party hired its first Hispanic outreach coordinator, Betsy Franceschini.

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