Updated:CENTRAL FLORIDA,None —
The Republican race for the presidential nomination is now calling Florida home as the candidates are set to face off in Tampa in their latest debate Monday night.
Republican presidential rivals Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have 10 days to navigate a state unlike any they've competed in so far.
Florida is six times larger than New Hampshire, has almost five times more Hispanics than Iowa, and with numerous media markets, is much more expensive for candidates than South Carolina. That's where Gingrich trounced Romney on Saturday night, suddenly scrambling the GOP presidential race ahead of Florida's Jan. 31 primary.
The remaining candidates in a shrunken field — Romney, Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul — planned to be in the state Monday for the first of two presidential debates this week.
Santorum and Mitt Romney didn't waste any time moving their games from South Carolina to Florida and taking on the president in the all-important I-4 corridor.
"His view is that government should get larger, it should become more intrusive, that it should become more bureaucratic," said Romney. "I think people in Florida want to see a leader guide our party and get out country back on track."
After a crushing South Carolina defeat, Romney no longer faces the prospect of wrapping up the nomination quickly and now is forced to regroup. He has spent months planning for the Florida campaign, essentially building a firewall in the state. He has the largest organization of any candidate. And he and his allies combined have had the TV airwaves all to themselves for weeks, already spending roughly $6 million combined. The former Massachusetts governor's areas of strength in the diverse state may be with the transplanted Northeasterners and snowbirds along the Gold Coast.
But now there are doubts about whether he can knit together the broad cross-section of Republican voters he'd need to win in this state, much less the nomination.
"I'm looking forward to a long campaign," Romney said on "Fox News Sunday," an acknowledgment that he wouldn't sew up the nomination with a Florida victory as aides once had hoped.
Rick Santorum is now the declared winner of the Iowa caucuses and hopes to have a good showing in the sunshine state. He was in Coral Springs on Sunday.
"This is a watershed election. There is no election that you will vote on that will have more consequence to your children and grandchildren," said Santorum. "We need a strong principled leader, someone who could present not just a clear contrast on the economic issues, but on the national security issues that are so vital."
Ron Paul is sitting out Florida for the most part. He's decided not to spend much time or money in Florida because it is a winner take all state and independents can't vote in the state's primary.
But, Newt Gingrich is banking on Florida to give him real front-runner status after he surged to a win in South Carolina.
Gingrich, for his part, will work to keep his momentum going despite continued division among tea party and religious activists who, to a certain degree, continue to divide their support between him and Santorum. The state's conservative panhandle may be fertile ground for the former Georgia lawmaker who talks of his Southern roots often. His team also is working hard to court evangelicals, who vote in droves in the state's GOP primaries and who tend to look skeptically on Romney.
He dramatically trails Romney in fundraising and organization in the state, underscored by his launching of an online "money bomb" Saturday night to try to raise $1 million to help fund his efforts in Florida.
"My job in Florida is to convince people that I am the one candidate who can clearly defeat Obama in a series of debates and the one candidate who has big enough solutions that they would really get America back on track," Gingrich told CNN's "State of the Union."
His South Carolina victory is certain to change the dynamics in a state where Romney has led in polls for weeks.
"President Obama's policies consistently kill jobs. He just killed jobs on the Keystone pipeline decision. He doesn't seem to be able to help himself," said Gingrich.
Gingrich will be in Brevard County on Wednesday for a campaign event.
Early voting has already begun, but the big day of primary voting is still more than a week away on January 31.
Florida's size and diversity creates challenges for all the candidates. And the issues may be far different than those in the previous states. There are 10 distinct media markets in Florida, which helps explain the tremendous cost of running a statewide campaign here. And the voters are anything but homogenous.
Monday's debate is scheduled for 9 p.m. at the University of South Florida.