For the 19th time, Republican presidential candidates gathered Thursday night to debate the issues. And Tuesday, it’ll be up to Florida voters, who are the next to head to the polls this campaign season.
Elaine Flowers, a Forsyth County resident and member of the local Tea Party Patriots organization, said the many debates have helped, but there’s more Americans can learn about the remaining four candidates.
Flowers, who got asked a question about illegal immigration during the nationally televised South Carolina debate, said the Florida event pushed the issue further.
"I think they all have good points concerning immigration," she said. "But I don’t know that they definitely got their plans down.
"We’ve still got a long way to go on the debate, but I’m glad people are getting more and more information on the candidates so we can make a good decision on who is going to be the next president."
Even though four hopefuls remain, area experts and Republican leadership say it’s really just a race between two.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich are neck and neck in the polls
"I think it’s going to remain close," said Carl Cavalli, associate professor of politics at North Georgia College & State University. "Newt Gingrich is sort of riding a tide of momentum right now, but Mitt Romney is still hanging on. He’s not falling by the wayside by any means."
During the Jan.21 election in South Carolina, Gingrich came from behind to win the state with a clear 40 percent of the vote.
Romney, who topped the field in New Hampshire, came in second with 27.8 percent.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who, after some clarification, won the first battle in Iowa, placed third in South Carolina with 17 percent.
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was second in New Hampshire, third in Iowa and fourth in South Carolina.
Cavalli said Paul is unlikely to go anywhere, even if he continues to reel in fourth place finishes.
"I think Ron Paul is the kind of candidate that doesn’t have any expectation of winning," Cavalli said. "His expectation is to get his word out. So he’ll hang around for a long time."
Ethan Underwood, chairman of the Forsyth County Republican Party, agreed.
"I would be very surprised if Ron Paul drops out until the convention," he said. "His strategy is to stay in no matter what."
The situation would appear to be different for Santorum. If Florida doesn’t deliver a big win, he may not last as long as Paul.
"If he doesn’t have a clear victory sometime soon, he will drop out," Cavalli said. "Support will dry up and he’ll effectively be a non-issue."
Underwood said Florida is a unique state, with a conservative panhandle, moderate central portion and a southern part that’s "up for grabs" between a conservative Cuban population and strong Democratic wing.
"I think Florida is going to shape a lot of the elections that come up on Super Tuesday," he said.
Super Tuesday, which falls on March 6, gets its name for the many states, including Georgia, holding caucuses or primaries that day.
Beyond Florida, the details get tricky. Gingrich and Santorum will not appear on the ballot in Virginia, so Cavalli said other states are going to be more important to score a victory.
Failing to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot in Virginia was not a surprise, given Gingrich’s early campaign. Still, the candidate is playing catch-up and it could hurt him in the end.
"He was not a particularly serious candidate this summer and in the fall and that’s the time where you’ve got to put together the organization to compete nationwide," Cavalli. "I think he’s going to pay the price for not doing that in the upcoming primaries and caucuses.
"He did wonderfully in South Carolina and he’s holding his own in Florida, but I don’t think he’s got the organization to carry it through the rest of the nation."
Yet Gingrich’s ability to stay afloat won’t matter if Romney surges ahead in Florida, Underwood said.
"If Romney has a big win in Florida, then I think most folks will probably start to say he’s the guy we need to get behind," Underwood said. "But if it’s a tight race, then I’ll predict that the nomination won’t likely be decided until Super Tuesday.
"Georgia is going to be vital on Super Tuesday because several of the candidates are not going to be on the ballot in all the states."