LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The campaign teams for Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are looking beyond the South Carolina primary next weekend and on to a bigger prize — Florida.
As the Republican Party of Florida held its annual meeting this weekend, Florida staffers for Romney and Gingrich were most prominently reaching out to GOP activists from around the state to either win over the uncommitted or to woo those who are supporting candidates that could drop out of the race before the primary is held here Jan. 31.
"For weeks we've heard from so many folks — 'As soon as our guy leaves, you're our second option, as soon as our guy leaves, we're coming to you.' And that's been great," said Gingrich Florida director Jose Mallea, part of a group of Gingrich supporters who were networking at the weekend event to build on grassroots support for the Florida primary.
Florida was stripped of half its delegates for breaking party rules and holding an early primary. But it still has 50 winner-take-all delegates up for grabs and comes fourth in the decision process after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. While most of the campaigns were focused on South Carolina's vote next Saturday, Romney and Gingrich's staffs were working the crowd here.
"Every other campaign is really dependent on a slingshot strategy. They're looking toward another early state to provide them with a boost of momentum to leapfrog to the next state. We've been on the ground working, organizing our plan (in Florida) for the last seven, eight months, completely independent from any momentum strategy going on in any of the other early states," said Brett Doster, a Florida political consultant working for Romney.
The fact that other candidates didn't have as strong as a presence was surprising to some Florida Republicans.
"This is where they need to be, shaking hands and talking to people. This is the best example of grassroots campaigning. This is every county in the state of Florida. This is the opportunity to say, 'Hey!'" said Carole Jean Jordan, a former state GOP chairwoman who said she was uncommitted in the race. "It's a huge loss for them not to have a presence here. It's the biggest meeting we'll have other than the convention. And it's in the time frame to make their play."
State party chairman Lenny Curry noted that Romney and Gingrich had the most obvious presence at the meeting and said other campaigns were making a mistake by not reaching out to party activists.
"A lot of these campaigns are clearly focused on South Carolina right now, particularly those that haven't done well," Curry said. "They're putting every resource they have in South Carolina. I think every campaign should be here. This is it. Florida is it."