The state's political terrain also tilts in Romney's favor. Republican voters, many of them transplants from the Northeast and Midwest, are more moderate and secular than their Iowa and South Carolina counterparts. Born-again Christians, a clear majority in the earlier states, are a distinct minority. And voters who describe themselves as "very conservative," a group less friendly to Romney, make up a significantly smaller share of the Florida electorate.
Another factor that could influence the results: Voting is well underway, and the ballots already cast can't be swayed by post-South Carolina momentum. More than 179,000 Floridians had returned absentee ballots by the middle of last week. An additional 275,000 had yet to be mailed in, and Romney's campaign, employing the sophisticated micro-targeting tactics that helped produce his New Hampshire victory, is pursuing likely supporters individually to make sure they return theirs too.
Voting is also taking place at early polling locations across the state. Gingrich's surge came too late for those who backed someone else, like Sylvia Santana, 40, a Tampa school district employee who voted for Rick Perry at the SouthShore Regional Library in Ruskin last Thursday.
"Oh, man! That's a killer!" she exclaimed upon learning that the Texas governor had just left the race. Informed that Perry endorsed Gingrich, she said, "That would have been my other option."
Romney is relying heavily on support from a Republican establishment increasingly eager to see the nomination decided before he incurs further damage. Romney lost Florida by 5 points in 2008, a race in which the tide may have been turned by then-Gov. Charlie Crist's last-minute endorsement of McCain.
Aides in the Romney camp have been hinting strongly at an endorsement soon by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The backing of the popular ex-governor "would, in effect, be a seal, ending the contest," Stipanovich said. "It would be like the referee stepping into the ring and stopping the fight."
But Bush appeared to dash those expectations, telling Bloomberg News that he would "stay neutral" in the primary and help "whoever wins the nomination."