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Mitt Romney's next big test isn't N.H. or S.C., it's Florida

Mitt Romney has to do well in New Hampshire and South Carolina. But Florida could make Romney the defacto GOP 2012 nominee.

(AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
McCain endorses Romney: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney listens as Sen. John McCain, (R) of Arizona, speaks in Manchester, N.H., Jan. 4, 2012.

After Tuesday's photofinish in Iowa - in which Mitt Romney edged Rick Santorum by just 8 votes - all the candidates are pounding the streets of New Hampshire, which casts ballots in just 5 days.

But the state that’s looming over this race as most likely to decide it won’t actually vote for 27 more days: Florida.

Romney has long held a big lead in New Hampshire. Given his history in the state, and the role independents play in the voting, he’s almost certain to win there. The only question is whether Rick Santorum can translate his strong showing in Iowa into a surprise - placing a strong second or third in the Granite State. How close Santorum can come will have an impact - either reinforcing his status as a legitimate threat to Romney or hinting he’s likely to go the way of Mike Huckabee in 2008.

But New Hampshire is unlikely to change the fundamental shape of the race.

That same dynamic, only in reverse, is then likely to play out in the next state: South Carolina, which votes on January 21. The GOP electorate there is more like Iowa’s, heavy on Christian conservatives. With Michele Bachmann out of the race and Rick Perry limping out of his fifth-place finish in Iowa, Santorum could garner a bigger share of the conservative vote than he did in Iowa. Which means that South Carolina is Romney’s chance for a surprise showing. How close Romney can come to a win will indicate strength or weakness - but barring a surprise Romney win there, South Carolina is also unlikely to be definitive.

Which brings us to Florida. With its diverse population and sheer size, a win in Florida for Romney could deliver the knock-out blow he’s been looking for. Tellingly, his campaign started advertising there Wednesday, making him the first candidate on the air in the Sunshine State (the pro-Romney Super PAC “Restore Our Future” has already spent nearly $1 million on ads in Florida and South Carolina).

If Romney cleans up in Florida, he may at that point become the defacto nominee. If he doesn’t, it means we’re in for a long, protracted battle that could stretch on for months.

New Hampshire and South Carolina will matter. But Florida will matter more.  

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