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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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Brad Coker, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, sees Romney as the likely GOP nominee – despite the Gingrich surge – and if that happens, believes Romney will win Florida in November even without Rubio on the ticket. Mr. Coker takes Rubio at his word that he'll resist any effort to get him on the ticket. But if Rubio is asked and relents, Coker says, "he would be helpful in a lot of places, not just Florida."

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At the Cafe Versailles in Miami, the social center of Little Havana, the Republican ticket – with or without Rubio – is sure to get the support of the old men who hang out by the takeout window and sip their Cuban coffee.

Manuel Coll, a retired truck driver and musician, reminisces about his arrival in the United States on July 2, 1960, and goes to his car to get his old Cuban passport, which he proudly shows his visitors.

When asked about Obama, Mr. Coll goes easy on him, as if he's a son who's in over his head. "He's not bad, but his suits are too big for him," Coll says. Who would be better? "Gingrich. He's prepared to be president." And how about the 40-year-old Rubio as his running mate? "Too young."

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If the Cuban "old guard" is reliably Republican, the same can't be said about their children. Alejandro Miyar, a 30-year-old law student at the University of Miami and the son of Cuban immigrants, says he became a Democrat the day President Bill Clinton visited his middle school in Miami.

"I don't feel Marco Rubio and I have much in common," despite their common heritage, says Mr. Miyar, who worked for the Obama campaign in Florida in the last election.

Miyar also comes from the youngest swath of voters in the 2008 elections – the 18-to-29-year-olds, who backed Obama by the widest margin, a historic 34 points. Today, young voters are still the group most favorably disposed toward the president in national polls – 49 percent, according to the Pew Research Center – though their enthusiasm has waned substantially since Obama took office.

In Florida, the Millennial Generation is actually the least likely to approve of Obama's job performance, according to PPP. In a PPP poll released earlier this month, the 18-to-29-year-olds registered only 33 percent job approval for Obama, compared with 45 percent among all Florida voters.

But PPP also found that when given a choice, the youngest voters choose Obama over Romney by 10 points and Obama over Gingrich by 11 points.

"Florida's a particularly dramatic case of a phenomenon we're seeing nationally. Young voters aren't very thrilled with the job Obama's done, but they're still planning to vote for him over any of the Republican alternatives," says Tom Jensen of PPP.

At the recent Miami Book Fair, Sam Hayashi and Irina Tavera are eager to talk politics. Both recent college grads, they say they'll vote for Obama, though neither plans to volunteer.

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