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Debate Could Be Key Moment In Fla. Primary

TALLAHASSEE (CBS4)- With poll results showing each of them surging at different points of the week and with the enormous stakes of Tuesday's Florida presidential primary, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney face different challenges as each takes the stage for Thursday night's debate in Jacksonville.

For Gingrich, the challenge is to try to keep his momentum going after soundly beating Romney in last week's South Carolina primary and reviving his once-faint hopes of winning the nomination.

For Romney, the debate is a chance to reverse days of negative headlines, from reports that he actually lost the Iowa caucuses to former Sen. Rick Santorum -- who originally came in second by eight votes -- to his faltering answers on releasing his tax returns, something Romney finally did earlier this week.

Santorum and Congressman Ron Paul, meanwhile, face the prospect of trying to secure more attention for their long-shot bids in a room expected to be dominated by the showdown between Romney and Gingrich.

In between all of that, the candidates might also have to deal with situations unique to Florida -- a housing market roiled by the foreclosure crisis, Cuban immigrants that make up a sizable chunk of the Republican base and the large number of older Floridians that call the state home, the News Service of Florida reported.

The state's AARP branch is already arguing that the neither of the Republican campaigns nor President Obama have focused enough on Social Security or Medicare.

"We're pleased that candidates are talking to Floridians 50-plus," Jeff Johnson, AARP Florida interim state director said in a statement issued Wednesday. "Now let's hear them say something -- something specific -- about how their plans would affect real Floridians."

Related Story: Candidates Begin Final Preps For Thursday Debate

Polls suggest Gingrich and Romney are far ahead of the other candidates but neck-and-neck with each other. A recent poll by Quinnipiac University showed Gingrich surging coming out of South Carolina, while a CNN/Time/ORC International Poll showed Romney regaining his edge by the time Tuesday rolled around.

According to the News Service of Florida, Romney performed well in Florida in 2008 -- getting 31 percent of the vote but losing to U.S. Sen. John McCain -- and was expected to be a formidable candidate in the Sunshine State because of a sizable fundraising advantage.

"This should be a strong state for Romney," said Matthew Corrigan, a political science professor at the University of North Florida, where Tuesday night's debate will be held. "If Romney lost this state, it would be a big blow to him."

To rebound, Romney needs to "be bold," said state Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, perhaps the highest-profile legislator to endorse Romney early in the cycle.

"I think ultimately people are going to decide on the basis that they want a person that they can believe could beat Barack Obama," Thrasher said.

Corrigan said Romney should also try to flip the argument on Gingrich, who has taken a beating from Romney and his surrogates. Romney's campaign has suggested that Gingrich is erratic, has a chaotic leadership style and engaged in influence-peddling after leaving the speakership in "disgrace."

"I think his strongest argument is that Gingrich is not electable," Corrigan said.

Gingrich, meanwhile, will look to shine in tonight's forum after a lackluster performance Monday.

The former House speaker has used debates to propel himself in the polls in earlier states.

Several observers blamed NBC's stern instructions to the crowd not to applaud the candidates for Monday's poor showing; Gingrich seemed to feed off the audience in earlier debates. The former speaker threatened to pull out of future debates if the crowds were quieted, but CNN has said those in attendance will be allowed to clap this evening.

"Gingrich has to do his best to please the crowed and recapture the lightning he had in South Carolina," said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist in Florida who is not affiliated with any campaign.

For Santorum, who was unable to ride his Iowa win to lasting success, and Paul, the mission of simply remaining a factor in the race is a tall order. Paul's dovish foreign-policy views alienate large swaths of the GOP electorate, and he has all but conceded Florida to focus on later caucus states.

"I stopped paying attention to Ron Paul, except to mock him, months ago," Wilson said.

Gingrich's surge in the Quinnipiac University poll appeared to show him gaining strength after the South Carolina results were announced, largely at Paul and Santorum's expense. While the larger margin of error for the subgroups was enough to raise some questions about how real that change was, it could suggest a coalescing of conservative support that some movement conservatives have hoped for in order to stop Romney.

John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, said conservative's choices are essentially down to Gingrich and Santorum.

"They're not looking at Romney," he said. "That's clear to me."

Stemberger -- who supported Texas Gov. Rick Perry before his implosion -- was among a group of social conservative leaders who recently endorsed Santorum in the hopes that he could consolidate the right. Stemberger now worries that the group's support "was unfortunately a little too late in the game to affect South Carolina or Florida."

And the biggest game-changer left on the board -- tonight's debate -- could further strengthen Gingrich.

"Let's face it: While he's not my candidate, Newt Gingrich is just a master communicator," Stemberger said.

Whether that's enough to overcome Romney's advantage in ads and organization is a question that won't be answered until Tuesday. And the results are almost certain to reverberate long after the candidates have left Florida.

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