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Florida Dispatch: As Field Narrows, GOP Race Heats Up in Sunshine State

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. | Florida Republicans seem to sense the heavy responsibility on their shoulders. Unlike December, when there were seven or eight candidates still in the presidential race, it’s down to four, and one of those — Ron Paul — says he’s not playing in Florida. The days when voters could pine for a combination of “all of the above” are fading, as the personalities and the records of frontrunners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich come into increasingly sharp relief.

In contrast to Iowa, where the drama of the campaign played out in coffee shops and small town halls, and where voters took pride in meeting the candidates personally, shaking their hands, looking them in the eye — the contest in the Sunshine State has scaled up. Crowds are bigger, they’re energized, and you don’t run into people who’ve had a personal conversation with every candidate in the race.

Just one event doesn’t describe a campaign, but the big, enthusiastic crowd that greeted Gingrich in Cocoa Beach Wednesday evening suggested many Republican primary voters are paying attention. They sat patiently as the former House speaker, who arrived late, began a mini-American history lesson, with Abraham Lincoln’s ahead-of-his-time push to build a cross-country railroad.

The connection? This is the so-called “Space Coast,” where NASA’s shut down of the shuttle program is causing real pain. Gingrich has long taken an interest in space exploration, and the ridicule Romney leveled at him recently over a vision of colonizing the moon angered many in this area.

Republican Florida State Sen. Thad Altman told me tens of thousands of local residents lived through “the Apollo days” and take space seriously. When Gingrich made a point of telling the Wednesday evening crowd here that one of his goals, by the end of his second term in office, to establish the first permanent base on the moon — “and it will be American” — the audience roared its approval.

This is also a state with active Tea Party elements, and the Uncle Sam hats and other apparel tell that story. A gentleman sitting near me at the Gingrich rally explained he was for Herman Cain until the former pizza company executive dropped out of the race, and confided he didn’t believe the accusations women made against Cain. His worn gray T-shirt, which he said he designed himself, displayed an image of President Obama on the left, and a line-up of well-known Communist leaders on the right — from Marx and Lenin to Stalin and Mao. The slogan surrounding it read: The Change (with a hammer and sickle design on the capital “C”) They Believe In.”

His friend sitting nearby, overhearing the comment about Cain, piped up, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

Gingrich was mobbed by attendees as he and his wife, Callista, tried to leave.

Follow Judy Woodruff on Twitter.

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