Election Day has arrived in 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.
Polls opened smoothly at 7 a.m. in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, according to the elections supervisors.
Miami-Dade County Elections spokeswoman Christina White said a voter’s early report that Miami precinct 556 did not open was incorrect, and she also said voters at precinct 792 in West Kendall have been allowed to continue voting despite an intense brush fire that resulted in a power shutdown in the area.
Not everyone was voting Gingrich and Romney, however.
Dale Barrow, 54,of the Hammocks, said he voted for Santorum because “he is the true conservative” in the race.
The U.S. Postal Service employee said “I am not here to compromise” and said he worried about the country’s debt.
“If we don’t stop it now, we are in big trouble,” he said. "What are we going to do when there’s no more money? It’s scary for my children.”
Gilbert Lopez, a 37-year old graphic designer cast his ballot at the Hialeah Goodlet Park precinct for Ron Paul.
“He is a noncorruptible, true American, and I’m sickened by the democrats and the Republican party,” Lopez said.Doubtful Paul will be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Lopez said he will write in Paul’s name on the ballot when he goes to vote in the presidential election.
“I’m voting my conscience this year,” he said.
The ultimate goal of the candidates Tuesday is to win Florida’s 50 delegates, which are needed to help ultimately nominate the national party’s nominee this summer at its Tampa convention. Gingrich has promised to fight all the way until the delegation. Ron Paul, who isn’t campaigning in Florida, is trying to win caucus states, such as Maine.
Polls were open to more than just Republican voters Tuesday.
In Broward County, Pembroke Pines, Fort Lauderdale, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea and Lighthouse Point are having elections for local government leaders. Hillsboro Beach, Sea Ranch Lakes, and Wilton Manors have referendums on the ballot, including questions asking voters if they want to exempt local officials from complying with countywide ethics rules.
Miami Gardens voters — who are largely not Republican — trickled into precincts Tuesday to vote on whether to amend the city’s boundaries and to select a new at-large councilman.
McClatchy Washington Bureau staff writers Lesley Clark, William Douglas and David Lightman contributed to this report. The Miami Herald’s Howard Cohen, Lidia Dinkova, Margaux Herrera, Alysha Khan, Alexa Lopez, Patricia Mazzei and Christina Veiga also contributed, as well as the Sun Sentinel.