(Miami Herald) Election Day has arrived in South Florida, and Republican voters are headed to the polls with two issues weighing heavily on their minds: the economy, and who has the greatest chance to defeat Barack Obama in the November presidential elections.
Candidates Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are on the Republican primary ballot, though the election in Florida is expected to be a two-man race between Romney and Gingrich, with Romney ahead due to a weeks-long push for absentee and early votes.
At the Belen Jesuit campus in West Miami-Dade, a Republican stronghold with about three times more registered Republicans than Democrats, Roger Cardenas, 41, voted for Romney.
“I don’t know if he can do everything he says he’ll do but he’s the only guy who can run against Obama,” said Cardenas, an electrician who came to South Florida from Cuba.
Rene Viera, a 64-year-old Westchester Realtor, said he voted for Gingrich because of the economy.
“The economy will be the hot topic,” he said. “The second issue will be, where is this country headed? The Obama administration wants to take us down the path to socialism and I think people will want off that bus.”
At Miami Fire Station No. 7, Lesmus Ruiz was the first to show up. The 71-year-old Republican salesman said he voted for Gingrich “because he’s the only one that can debate this president right now.”
A Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald/Tampa Bay Times poll released Saturday night shows that Romney has an edge both in the Florida primary and against Obama. The poll showed Romney held an 11 percentage point lead over Gingrich in the primary, and would beat Obama by a 48 - 44 percent spread in a theoretical general-election matchup, though the lead was inside the error-margin.
A substantial Romney edge in early and absentee voters also does not bode well for Gingrich.
At least 632,000 Republicans have already cast ballots, and Gingrich could have been losing by as many as 60,000 votes before the polls even opened Tuesday, according to an analysis of early-voter surveys and the averages of all the major statewide polls applied to the pool of already cast ballots.
“I think Gingrich could be losing more to Mitt Romney — like 75,000ish,” said Randy Nielsen, a top Florida political consultant for the Republican Party of Florida who’s not affiliated with any presidential candidate.
“This election isn’t going to be pretty for Newt Gingrich,” Nielsen said. “He didn’t have a program to get early and absentee votes, and Gingrich is losing to Mitt Romney in every region except for North Florida. But he’s not winning there enough to make up the difference.”
The actual number of early ballots won by the candidates won’t become known until after Election Day.
And Gingrich could be doing much better if his campaign somehow managed to get voters to flock to early-voting precincts and cast absentee ballots in numbers that well exceed the average estimates of nearly 30 scientific surveys that have a 4 percent error margin. Factor that in, and Gingrich could trail Romney by about 42,000 votes.