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Mitt Romney has edge in Florida, but President Obama is pushing hard

11:58 AM, Oct 24, 2012   |    comments
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(CBS NEWS) -- On an electoral map that still poses challenges for Mitt Romney, one heartening trend for the Republican nominee can be found in Florida, whose 29 electoral votes constitute the largest prize among the battleground states.

In recent weeks, the Sunshine State has moved clearly in Romney's direction.

After President Obama led in every Florida poll released in the second half of September, Romney has been ahead in nine of the last 10 surveys conducted, leading his opponent by 1.8 percent in the latest RCP Average of polls here.

Romney's momentum is particularly significant for one reason: Florida is a must-win state for him. If he were to fall short, he would have to sweep the remaining eight battlegrounds in order to win the presidency -- a scenario that not even his rosiest spinmeister would deem credible.

For Obama, on the other hand, Florida is a prime opportunity to seal the deal rather than a necessity for political survival.

Anitere Flores, a Republican who serves in the state Senate, said signs of Romney's momentum could be seen the last couple of weeks just by driving around her South Florida district.

"I always say as a politician that yard signs don't vote. We know that. But yard signs give people a sense of ownership of the campaign," Flores said. "Four weeks ago, there were no yard signs for either candidate anywhere in our universe. Now, everywhere you turn, it's mostly for Romney and people have them everywhere."

Flores added quickly that she holds no illusions of an easy victory for Romney in her state.

She is not alone in that assessment.

While both campaigns agree privately that Romney has opened up a small lead here, neither one believes that advantage is more than a couple of points.

And there is room for the dynamic to shift once again down the homestretch, as persuadable voters who live along Central Florida's I-4 corridor -- long the crown jewel of presidential swing regions -- make their final decisions.

Obama demonstrated his continued determination not to cede the state to Romney by sticking around the morning after their debate Monday and giving a feisty speech in Delray Beach.

And while visiting a campaign field office in Orlando over the weekend, Vice President Joe Biden did not downplay the importance of a Democratic victory here to his own re-election hopes.

"We win Florida, this is all history man," Biden said as he greeted volunteers. "If you guys push Florida over, this thing becomes not close."

State Democrats have a registration advantage over Republicans of almost 500,000, and the minority population in Florida has grown significantly over the last four years, providing an additional cushion for Obama.

But the president's campaign has been hindered by a Democratic base here that is less motivated than it was four years ago, when Obama carried Florida by a 3 percent margin over John McCain.

State Republicans note that they have been outpacing Democrats in absentee ballot requests, though at a lesser rate than they did in 2008.

But as is the case in every swing state, Democrats have been touting what they believe is a clear advantage in their ground game, which could tip the outcome of the race.

"There are 103 [Obama campaign] field offices in Florida -- they have been open and operating and people have been out there working hard first to register huge numbers and now making sure people are voting early," said Florida Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch. "That ground game is going to matter a lot."

Following Monday night's third and final presidential debate, held at Lynn University, several Obama campaign officials and Florida-based surrogates said that they expect the president to return to the state during the final two-week push. But any additional visits would have to be weighed against Obama's most pressing strategic concern: keeping the Midwestern triumvirate of Ohio, Iowa, and Wisconsin in his column.

Asked about the Romney team's view that they now have a clear leg up in Florida, which might allow them to focus resources elsewhere, Bob Graham -- the state's former governor, senator, and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate -- sounded a defiant note.

"That's not a very good commentary on the judgment of Gov. Romney and the people who surround him," Graham said. "I believe Florida continues to be very much in contest."

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