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GOP presidential candidates quietly organizing in Florida

By Scott Powers, The Orlando Sentinel –

ORLANDO, Fla. — Political ground troops are getting ready for the battle of Florida — which begins in earnest Jan. 22 for those Republican presidential candidates who survive South Carolina’s primary the night before.

For now, the Florida battlefield is mostly calm, with the Jan. 31 Florida primary, and 50 winner-take-all delegates, slightly more than three weeks away. But it’s a deceptive calm.

Campaigns are opening offices with one-month leases; acquiring the latest voter registration lists, organizing volunteers; ordering boxes of yard signs and bumper stickers — and sending mailers to hundreds of thousands of absentee voters.

“The key now is focusing on real grass-roots,” said Jose Mallea, Florida state director for former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “Volunteer efforts. Phone calls. Post cards. A lot of that has already started throughout the state, but it will pick up.”

The Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul campaigns have purchased voter mailing lists and are in the process of sending materials to 402,000 Republicans who’s requested absentee ballots. Some began arriving this week. More will arrive next week.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is the only candidate on TV; this week, he launched $825,000 in commercials — including about $220,000 of airtime in Central Florida — in Florida markets, except Miami. His 30-second introductory ad, titled “Leader,” is running throughout the day on both cable and broadcast stations.

The “Restore Our Future” super PAC, which supports Romney but is officially unaffiliated with the campaign, has been running commercials bashing Gingrich during local news broadcasts for the past four weeks. Gingrich himself blamed those ads for his fourth-place finish in this week’s Iowa caucuses, which Romney won by 8 votes over former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Gingrich, who topped polls of Florida Republicans taken in early December — before his campaign nosedived in Iowa and elsewhere — is the only candidate who’s announced appearances in Florida before the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary.

He will be in Miami, Daytona Beach and Orlando next Friday, the 13th, for fundraisers, the opening of a regional campaign office in Orlando and an appearance at the Republican Party of Florida’s annual board meeting at Walt Disney World.

Gingrich, Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are the only candidates with formal campaign structures, offices, paid staff and county chairs throughout most or all of the state.

Perry has a headquarters in Tallahassee and a team that includes Tony Fabrizio and Nelson Warfield, who helped chart Gov. Rick Scott’s successful “outsider” campaign in 2010. Romney, based in Tampa, lists U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami and Winter Park financier Phil Handy, one of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s key education advisers. Gingrich is headquartered in Miami and just announced that former Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty and former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum would head his Florida campaign.

Ron Paul, the Texas congressman, is relying on a network of independent volunteers who mostly met each other through their associations with two social action organizations founded by Paul four years ago, separately from his political campaigns. His network is not yet statewide but claims hundreds of volunteers in Orlando, South Florida, Tampa and Jacksonville.

But Santorum, the surprise of Iowa’s caucus who polls show is also moving up in New Hampshire, has as yet no organization in Florida. However, his state chairman, Jesse Biter of Sarasota, sent out e-mail last week to GOP groups and activists announcing that he has a group of 110 volunteers statewide who were looking for county, regional and coalition leaders.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who briefly had his national headquarters in Orlando, retains an office in Miami and a smaller statewide network that includes Jeb Bush Jr., son of the former governor. But Huntsman has focused all his efforts on New Hampshire’s primary next Tuesday.

All the surviving candidates are expected to be in Florida full-time after the South Carolina primary. But their campaigns — perhaps not certain of survival — have yet to commit to anything.

“We’re definitely going to be on our way to Florida,” said Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger. “Once we get closer to that time we’ll announce specific events.

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