We still don't know who'll win the Florida primary Tuesday, but after the past two debates it seems far likelier to be Mitt Romney.
Why? Because Newt Gingrich had vaulted from the margins to the forefront of the Republican presidential race in South Carolina on the strength of two debate performances. And that weapon has ceased to work in his favor.
The NBC and CNN debates this week in Tampa and Jacksonville went a long way toward neutralizing the impression created by debates the previous week in Myrtle Beach and Charleston.
Rick Santorum may be running an anemic third in Republican presidential primary polls in Florida, but his influence in Tuesday's crucial Sunshine State contest – and perhaps beyond – continues to outpace his survey numbers.
His performance during Thursday's GOP debate in Jacksonville provided perhaps the best view yet of the former Pennsylvania senator's increasing potential to play spoiler (see: Mitt Romney) or savior (see: Mitt Romney), and to take his unlikely quest for the White House deeper into the primary season than anyone every predicted.
From Pensacola to Miami, the Republican primary is in full swing. Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are blanketing the state with rallies and personal appearances. The airwaves are full of campaign ads.
But Jeanne Casserta has heard enough. With several days left to go in the campaign, she stopped by the library in Coral Springs this week to cast her vote. She said she's heard plenty from both the Romney and Gingrich campaigns.
It was so clear for a moment: Mitt Romney was in the lead in the presidential nomination race. Newt Gingrich was a distant second. Rick Santorum — the youthful candidate — was appealing to the socially conservative voters. And Ron Paul was hanging on.
As the Republican presidential hopefuls head into their final televised confrontation Thursday night at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville (at 8 p.m. ET on CNN), NPR's Ari Shapiro reports that the debate could sway the outcome of the close race.