In sprawling Florida, GOP primary fight centers on the airwaves

DUNEDIN, Fla. — If you didn't turn on the television or tune in to the radio, it would be easy to miss the fact that there's a presidential primary election less than 24 hours out in Florida.

In the first three states to hold primary contests — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — the presence of the looming vote was tangible. Residents could be overheard discussing the candidates — Mitt, Jon, Newt, Ron, Rick and the other Rick — in the most apolitical of places. Yard signs bearing the slogans of each candidate lined almost every corner — sometimes by the dozens. 

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In the Sunshine State, the only place campaign signs can be found is the immediate vicinity of campaign events, clearly put in place beforehand by the candidate's teams.

The remarkable lack of political activity speaks to the very different challenge for candidates campaigning in Florida, a laid-back state lacking the political culture of its primary predecessors.

Residents in Iowa and New Hampshire are accustomed to helping pick the nation's presidential nominees, and they relish the role bestowed upon them by the national parties, who set the calendar for the primary contests. That's not the case in Florida.

Florida has traditionally held its primary in March, in the middle of the nomination season, meaning by the time Floridians went to the polls, the field had already been winnowed and in some cases the presumptive nominee established. But with the intent of giving its residents a bigger say over the next White House inhabitant, in 2008, the state moved its primary up to January, setting up a scramble as the "real" early states leapfrogged to maintain their position.

Florida did the same in 2012, leading to a penalty of half its delegates by the national GOP, but also putting the state at the center of a nominating contest that is far from decided.

But so far, the early-state culture hasn't fully caught on.

"Most of them don't even know what the current events are, what the policy planks of the candidates are," said Shane Nixon, an unemployed resident of Pompano Beach, Fla., about the state’s voters.

Part of it could be due to the fact that, unlike in small states like New Hampshire, candidates can't reasonably expect to meet a large portion of the primary electorate in person. As a result, the war is waged via cable news sound bites and television ads, giving the advantage to whichever candidate has enough dough to drop on the state's 10 expensive media markets.

In Iowa and New Hampshire, voters frequently said they wanted to meet a candidate three or four times before making up their minds. Campaign events were chock-full of people, but they weren't necessarily there to support the candidate; they were there to listen, contemplate their positions and then run off to hear another presidential hopeful make their pitch.

In Florida, the voters who packed campaign events appeared to have already made up their minds, proudly bearing that candidate's T-shirt or sticker. 

At a rally packed by thousands of Romney supporters Monday in a park in Dunedin, Fla., when Mitt Romney spoke of returning vitality to America, the crowd let loose with applause — and kept applauding for about 15 seconds, until they erupted into a loud chant of "Vote for Mitt."

An NBC News/Marist poll released Sunday showed that 96 percent of likely Republican voters in Florida have already made up their mind about whom they will vote for on Tuesday.

The different dynamic seems not only to have affected candidates' supporters, but also their detractors. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney was loudly and regularly heckled during his events by Occupy Wall Street protesters who were escorted out and in some cases arrested. 

In Florida, the protesters showed up, but were much more timid, waiting until after events concluded to make their presence known — and therefore failing to attract the desired attention for their cause.

And unlike in Iowa or New Hampshire, where residents were wholly unimpressed and unamused by the swarms of reporters and cameramen from around the world, in Florida, they frequently approached the cordoned off areas assigned to the media gaggle with the curiosity of a petting zoo, taking photographs of the journalists as they worked. 

One woman at a rally near Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., on Sunday went around questioning reporters if they were friends with NBC political director Chuck Todd, asking if they could introduce her. Todd was not present.

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