Florida primary exit polls: 2/3rds say debates mattered

A pair of voters cast their ballots, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012, at a fire station in Coral Gables, Fla. Mitt Romney entered the day as the heavy favorite over Newt Gingrich in Florida's winner-take-all primary. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have ceded the vote to the two front-runners and planned to spend the day campaigning in Colorado and Nevada. AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Two in three Florida primary voters say the presidential debates were an important factor in their vote, according to early CBS News exit polls. That's a positive sign for Mitt Romney, who was widely seen as besting rival Newt Gingrich in the two Sunshine State debates over the past week.

For evidence of the importance of the debates, look no further than South Carolina, where nearly the same percentage of voters said the debates were important in early exit polls. Gingrich was widely seen as the victor in the two debates there, and he went on to a double-digit victory.

The exit poll results being discussed here are early results; full exit poll results will be released at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time. (The polls in Florida close at 7:00 p.m. across the state, but the state is part of two time zones. Because the northwestern part of the state is in the Central Time zone, polls there don't close until 8:00 Eastern Time.)

Electability was what Florida Republican voters were seeking in a candidate: 45 percent said the most important candidate quality is that they could defeat President Obama. That was followed by having the right experience (20 percent), having strong character (17 percent) and being a true conservative (13 percent).

A pair of voters cast their ballots, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012, at a fire station in Coral Gables, Fla. Mitt Romney entered the day as the heavy favorite over Newt Gingrich in Florida's winner-take-all primary. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have ceded the vote to the two front-runners and planned to spend the day campaigning in Colorado and Nevada.
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Asked who has run the most unfair campaign, 37 percent of Florida voters pointed to Romney, whose super PAC has blanketed the state with negative ads about Gingrich. Thirty-four percent pointed to Gingrich. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, who did not seriously contest the winner-take-all primary, were selected by just four percent each.

Thirty-nine percent of Florida voters said campaign ads were an important factor in their decision; 58 percent said they were not. Romney and his super PAC far outspent his rivals in advertising in the Sunshine State, which is one of the most expensive states in the country to run ads in because of its many media markets.

Florida is an early voting state, and just 27 percent of voters said they decided on their candidate in the last few days. Twenty-nine percent said they decided earlier this month, while 42 percent said they decided before that. Romney did relatively well in debates prior to Gingrich's strong performance in the South Carolina face-offs.

Half of early voters in Florida backed Romney, survey shows

The economy was overwhelmingly the most important issue to Florida Republican voters, cited by 62 percent; a distant second was the federal budget deficit at 24 percent. Half said that foreclosure problems were a major problem in their community, and just 15 percent said they were not a problem.

A majority of Florida Republican voters - 57 percent -- were happy with the candidates on the ballot. But in a potentially troubling sign for Republicans in this swing state, 39 percent said they were not satisfied.

Live Election Results for Florida (Returns will begin to show up at 7:00 pm. Eastern)

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