It's also critical in the race against President Barack Obama, putting Romney in a key battleground state a day after Democrats started spending money to run attack ads against him.
MIAMI — If there's any Republican presidential candidate who can afford to spend precious time and money focusing on winning in Florida, it's the one campaigning in the state Tuesday.
While others focus on Iowa's caucuses or the early primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Mitt Romney spent the morning welcoming endorsements from three top Cuban-American Republicans. He was set to attend several fundraisers and visit the port in Tampa to discuss trade policy.
It's the only early primary state Romney is visiting this week, little more than a month before voters start weighing in on the GOP nominating contest, in Iowa. It's also critical in the race against President Barack Obama, putting Romney in a key battleground state a day after Democrats started spending money to run attack ads against him.
"They don't want to see me as the nominee, that's for sure," Romney told reporters Tuesday. "It shows that they're awfully afraid of facing me in the general election. They want to throw the primary process to anybody but me, but bring it on. We're ready for them."
He announced endorsements from Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart and his brother, former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, among others. They underscore his strengths going into the Jan. 31 Florida primary and would help him appeal to Hispanics in the state should he become the nominee. The Cuban exile community in the Miami area is an important constituency group for Republicans and the three, who endorsed Sen. John McCain over Romney in 2008, are longtime leaders here.
Romney's also racked up support from a list of other establishment Florida politicians, including former Sen. Connie Mack and Sen. Mel Martinez.
Contrast that with his rivals, who have spent most of the primary campaign jockeying to become the consensus conservative alternative to the former Massachusetts governor — and probably need to win at least one earlier-than-Florida primary to stand a chance of competing with Romney.
Newt Gingrich is spending three days in South Carolina this week. Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman are campaigning in New Hampshire. Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann are in Iowa. Herman Cain is scheduled to make stops in Michigan and Ohio, though his campaign is now battling new accusations that he had an extramarital affair.
"It's almost like every other campaign is focused on this slingshot strategy with having to win one or two other states and then coming into Florida with momentum," said Brett Doster, who ran former President George W. Bush's reelection campaign in Florida and is now advising Romney.
The mechanics of winning here play directly to Romney's strengths as a candidate. He's shown discomfort with the hand-to-hand retail politicking that's critical in other early states but isn't effective in a state of nearly 19 million people. He's sitting on the kind of cash it takes to run TV ads here — nearly $1.5 million per week for a buy in all 10 of the state's media markets — and keep raising it.
He can't afford to neglect Florida. Although he has a significant lead in New Hampshire, he's vulnerable in Iowa and South Carolina. His advisers have long said performing well in Florida is critical for his campaign.
Almost all of Romney's rivals, on the other hand, acknowledge they're barely thinking about Florida.
"This race hasn't come to Florida yet," said Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond. Gingrich's first priority is South Carolina, where he's hired nearly a dozen people and opened several campaign offices.
"Iowa and New Hampshire and the earliest states are priorities for the governor's time and our campaign," said Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan.
"We felt all along that Iowa was going to be our priority from day number one," said Bachmann spokeswoman Alice Stewart. "As to when and how we campaign in Florida will be decided after the caucuses."
Most of the Republican field did gather here for three days of events surrounding a debate and a straw poll at the end of September. But since then, Bachmann and Perry haven't come back for public events. Huntsman moved his campaign headquarters from Orlando to Manchester, N.H.
Cain, who won the straw poll, was in Miami earlier this month, where he visited a restaurant in Little Havana that's a frequent stop for political candidates. But he's dogged by allegations of sexual harassment and now an extramarital affair, and has suffered in polls for it.
The straw poll was a setback for Perry. Still, he pays a staff of 11 in the state and has worked to cultivate relationships with tea party leaders. He's also hired a national campaign team that has significant Florida experience. But Perry hasn't been back since September, and a series of bad debate performances has hampered his fundraising and ability to compete here.
Romney didn't compete in the poll, though he attended the debate. He has five paid staffers working for him out of a state campaign headquarters in Tampa — also the site of the Republican National Convention next summer. He's campaigned here periodically since announcing his candidacy in June.