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Candidate roots don't much matter in diverse Fla.

By Matt Sedensky

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Jan. 27 2012 9:30 a.m. MST

Republican presidential candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney participate in the Republican presidential candidates debate in Jacksonville, Fla., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012.

Matt Rourke, Associated Press

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Mitt Romney's ties to the Northeast gave him a boost on the way to winning the New Hampshire primary. Newt Gingrich's roots in the South probably had at least a little to do with his South Carolina triumph.

Neither presidential candidate is expected to benefit from such geographic ties in next week's Republican primary in Florida, a diverse state suffering through a world of economic hurt.

"Geography will not play any role in my decision," said Rich Cole, sounding like many voters across the state.

Cole, 68, lives in Florida's largest retirement community, The Villages, and hails from Pennsylvania, which candidate Rick Santorum represented in the Senate. Cole said he likes Santorum but plans to back Romney, for whom he voted four years ago. He thinks Romney gives Republicans the best chance of beating President Barack Obama in November.

A self-described "God-fearing conservative," Larry Dos Santos, of Venice, was leaning toward backing Gingrich. Dos Santos, a 65-year-old retiree from New York who lived nearly all his life on Long Island, noted that the former House speaker has some qualities that remind him of home.

"Telling it like it is is definitely like a New Yorker," he said of the former Georgia congressman. "Nobody pulls punches in New York."

While a candidate's roots may earn them kinship in Florida, hometown ties are unlikely to earn them a vote in a year when many Republicans here tell pollsters that electability and the economy are the two factors that rank above all else as they decide who to support in Tuesday's primary.

Geography seemed to make a difference in previous contests this year.

Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, led comfortably in polls ahead of the New Hampshire primary and played up his New England ties often. He won by roughly 17 percentage points. In South Carolina, Gingrich spent more than a week emphasizing his Southern ties even though he had spent the better part of a decade living near Washington. Gingrich ended up winning the state by about 12 percentage points.

But Florida is different, and in no way homogeneous.

Although it is home to the southern-most tip of the U.S., Florida's overall culture is hardly Southern. It's filled with transplants from the Northeast and Midwest who settled along the Gold and Gulf coasts, as well as so-called snowbirds who spend part of the year here only to keep their voter registrations in other states.

Florida's southern region has huge Hispanic and Caribbean influences. The northwestern Panhandle has some communities that strongly identify with parts of the Deep South. Add in the huge, transient military presence around Jacksonville and elsewhere, and just about everybody can call themselves a Floridian.

All things being equal, Romney might be able to count on benefiting from the support of New Yorkers, who constitute one of the largest populations of non-native Floridians now living in the state, and other New Englanders. And Gingrich could seemingly count on the support of those in the conservative Panhandle, which borders Georgia.

"In a different kind of year, geographical roots could have an impact in Florida, but not this year," said Jennifer Donahue, a public policy fellow at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. "Florida has been hit so hard by the housing crisis that perhaps the only thing that will help a candidate reach voters is by articulating a vision that will help Florida's economy."

There's no guarantee that candidates can count on geographic ties. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani hoped the love of transplanted New Yorkers would carry him to victory here four years ago. He ended up falling flat.

This year, Sean Foreman, a political science professor at Barry University in Miami Shores, said ideology trumps regional appeal.

"The moderate versus conservative battle is more important than where someone cut their political teeth," he said.

John Bowker, an 81-year-old retiree in Sun City Center, was born in Vermont and lived most of his life in New Jersey. He said he wanted to watch Thursday's debate and read the Sunday papers before making up his mind, but had ruled out at least one criterion: "Geography? That has not played a role in my thinking."

"I'm listening to what they are saying and how they are saying it," Bowker said.

Still, having a state in common with a candidate doesn't hurt.

Ellen Hoffman, a 73-year-old retired teacher living in The Villages, hails from Michigan, where Romney grew up.

"The Michigan connection first drew me to him," Hoffman said. But that wasn't enough, she said. His positions and electability are what made up her mind.

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