Four Republican candidates contest today’s primary election in Florida, seeking the state’s 50 delegates. Mitt Romney is the front runner – having polled in a statistical dead heat with Newt Gingrich just a couple weeks ago, but opening up a wide lead in several polls over the weekend and early this week. Romney performed well in Florida in 2008 — getting 31 percent of the vote but losing to U.S. Sen. John McCain — and has used his fundraising advantage to saturate airwaves in parts of Florida. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, has appeared unable to ride his after-the-fact Iowa win to lasting success and he and Ron Paul are simply trying to remain factors in the race. Florida’s primary is winner take-all. Nearly a half million Florida voters have already cast ballots.
Running thoughts from throughout Election Day in Florida.
9:01 p.m. – Adam Putnam: strength of Romney organization shows he’s strongest candidate for general election.
8:59 p.m. – According to tonight’s exit polls in Florida, Mr. Romney won 56 groups, while Newt Gingrich won 14.
8:56 p.m. – Charlie Crist on MSNBC on tenor of race: “My hope is we can get away from that negative tone. We are all Americans.”
8:26 p.m. – Romney campaign site: “Thank you Florida”
8:25 p.m. – Ron Paul came in second among the under-30s.
8:13 p.m. – Exit poll: Almost 40 percent of Republicans were dissatisfied with the choices available.
8:11 p.m. – John Heilemann thinks the Romney campaign needs a margin of victory “that screams that they have decapitated Gingrich, and then played soccer with his severed head”:
What margin will convey that image? At this point, I’d guess the consensus among the political class is that it will have to be in double digits. Anything less will raise questions about how Gingrich — despite being outspent four-to-one in Florida and running a pathetic, at times abominable, campaign here — managed to bounce back at the close. And if by some remote chance Gingrich manages to finish within five points of Romney, the outcome will not just leave him with his noggin on his shoulders but both pissed off and emboldened.
8:10 p.m. – Weigel is on the mark about this: In Iowa, early entrance polls gave Romney a narrow lead over Rick Santorum; it vanished with the final count. In New Hampshire, early exits showed Romney dominant, but final results pushed his total under 40 percent. In South Carolina, each wave of exit polls showed Newt Gingrich’s lead increasing.
8:08 p.m. – Those who support the Tea Pary movement favor Romney by 3%; those who don’t pick Romney by 39%
8:07 p.m. – Married men prefer Romney over Newt by just 4%; whereas, Romney is besting Gingrich among married women by 26%.
8:00 p.m. – ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC all call the race for Mitt Romney.
7:45 p.m. – Mark Foley weighs in: “Romney got the scare of his life in South Carolina and doubled down on his stump speech and finally realized he could not just cruise to the nomination but had to earn it and he sharpened and focused his campaign to blunt the Gingrich surge That coupled with a superior money advantage and the institutional support of the republican office holders may have sealed the deal. In my view Florida is a do or die state for anyones candidacy and if Romney scores a Plus 12 spread over Gingrich today he is likely unstoppable. Paul and Santorum are side shows in Florida and both are in Colorado knowing this is a two man race.”
7:43 p.m. – Romney 48.7%, Gingrich 30.5%, Santorum 12.5%.
7:35 p.m. – Romney 49.6%, Gingrich 29.7%, Santorum 12.3%.
7:31 p.m. – Romney 50.1%, Gingrich 29.1%, Santorum 12.4%.
7:26 p.m. – Top line exit polls posted by the Drudge Report show Mitt Romney crushing the field with 52%, followed by Newt Gingrich at 26%, Rick Santorum at 12% and Ron Paul at 8%. If those numbers hold up, it would be a crushing defeat for Gingrich.
7:22 p.m. – While about 650,000 votes were cast early, either in early voting or by absentee, Election Day turnout is shaping up to be light, according to several sources. The state’s top elections official Kurt Browning, earlier said turnout was “light to moderate.” The supervisor of elections in Orange County said it was “pitiful,” and the Florida Times-Union reported that turnout in St. Johns County, typically a GOP stronghold, was about 25 percent on Tuesday.
7:21 p.m. – Romney 49.0%, Gingrich 29.3%, Santorum 12.7%.
7:20 p.m. – Romney 50.4%, Gingrich 28.0%, Santorum 12.1%.
4:21 p.m. – “The winner of Florida is in all likelihood going to be the nominee of our party.” — Sen. Marco Rubio, endorsing Mitt Romney without actually endorsing him.
1:09 p.m. – Santorum says he’s raised 4 million dollars since his Iowa win, says they are hiring staff this week.
12;51 p.m. – Robo-Call: Under Romney, Holocaust survivors ‘forced to eat non-Kosher’
12:43 p.m. – David Johnson and Steve Schale are featured in this New York Times story about Florida’s political geography.
12:38 p.m. – Romney promises to continue with negative ads.
12:06 p.m. – HuffPost’s Amanda Terkel reports: The Newt Gingrich campaign has a robocall out in Florida claiming that Mitt Romney once took kosher food away from Holocaust survivors.
11:39 a.m. – Kurt Browning: So far, so good for GOP primary
11:22 a.m. – Mark Blumenthal writes [R]emaining voter uncertainty combined with the wide discrepancies among some of the polls is a warning that small variations in polling methodology can make a big difference in the results. Thus, while Mitt Romney appears headed for a Florida victory on Tuesday, his ultimate margin may still surprise.
11:21 a.m. – Charles Franklin’s projections: The end result is the standard trend putting Romney at 39.7 and Gingrich at 31.7, with Santorum at 11.5 and Paul at 10.2.
11:13 a.m. – Gary Fineout on some things to take away from the Florida primary (other than who won).
11:06 a.m. – Final ARG poll finds 51% of Florida GOPers who voted early/absentee voted for Romney.
10:57 a.m. – “You mean those who said I was dead in June? Those who said I was dead in December? They are about as accurate as they were the last two times they were wrong.” — Newt Gingrich, quoted by ABC News, refuting predictions the presidential race would be effectively over if he lost in Florida.
10:34 a.m. – Newt’s probably going to lose Tuesday, but he could emerge a stronger contender, argues Ron Brownstein.
10:28 a.m. – Frank Sullivan, who composed “Eye of the Tiger” in 1982 sued Gingrich yesterday. “The suit asks for an injunction to prevent Gingrich from using the song, as well as damages and attorneys’ fees to be determined by the court,” per the LA Times.
10:18 a.m. – Key numbers: 503,111 absentee ballots requested – 199,132 more than in 2008. 283,259 voted early – 17,918 more than in 2008. 591,666 total votes cast – 103,271 more than in 2008.
9:54 a.m. – “While his GOP rivals duke it out in a bloody Florida primary on Tuesday, Ron Paul will continue stumping for votes in the caucus states that dominate the political calendar over the next week,” ABC News reports.
9:21 a.m. – Marco Rubio says Florida winner will clinch nomination.
9:18 a.m. – A group of orangutans at Miami’s Jungle Island were given a chance to predict the winner of the Florida primary on Monday, using iPads and a program that trainers use to teach them how to communicate. Their picks actually turned out pretty similar to real polling in the state. WPLG in Miami reports.
9:15 a.m. – Charlie Crist just wrapped up appearance on Chuck Todd.
9:05 a.m. – Florida Democrats have released this web video about who is the real winner of the Florida primary.
8:55 a.m. – Tim Murphy reviews the actual history of Newt and Reagan.
8:54 a.m. – Very interesting study from Lynn Vavreck and Ryan D. Enos about how candidates can affect voters’ perceptions of reality, centered on Newt’s rhetoric about food stamps. A point off, however, for beginning the last paragraph with “In what is sure to be a close contest.”
8:49 a.m. – Can Gingrich make a comeback if he loses Florida primary?
8:48 a.m. – A useful update from the AP: The count so far in the race for delegates needed to win the Republican presidential nomination.
8:43 a.m. – Santorum says Gingrich should stop pressuring GOP rivals to drop out.
8:29 a.m. – Tampa Trib’s Joe Henderson: There’s no reason why the fourth-largest state in the union shouldn’t have considerable say in shaping the national election conversation, and that’s what will happen once voting is done here.
8:24 a.m. – John Avlon reports that a staggering 92% of the political ads run in Florida over the last week have been negative.
8:07 a.m. – Gov. Rick Scott won’t say how he voted. He cast his ballot at a precinct in Tallahassee. His candidate’s name had “less than 10 letters.” Via Steve Bosquet.