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GOP Hopefuls' Spending Reaches 'Fever Pitch' in Florida

Energized by Newt Gingrich's primary win in South Carolina, a super PAC backing the candidate is starting to rival what Mitt Romney, and a super PAC supporting the Massachusetts man's candidacy, is spending in Florida. Florida's primary goes down Jan. 31. As recent elections have proven, Florida can make or break candidates, and both Romney and Gingrich desperately want a title there.

"We got some money coming in earlier in the month, but certainly activity has ramped up to fever pitch, now that South Carolina is behind us," says Steve Wasserman, vice president and general manager at WPTV West Palm Beach.

Local TV managers in the Sunshine State say Romney has had an on-air presence for weeks. Both the candidate and the Restore our Future PAC that endorses his candidacy increased spend as Gingrich's corresponding PAC, Winning Our Future, began to spend after the Jan. 21 South Carolina showdown. Dr. Miriam Adelson will reportedly contribute $5 million to Winning Our Future, after her husband, Sheldon, previously kicked in his own $5 million.

Winning Our Future's attack ads helped Gingrich take South Carolina over Romney by around 12 percentage points -- and set the stage for a battle royale in Florida. "What happened with Gingrich over the weekend caused both sides to spend money," says Jim Zerwekh, vice president and general manager at WTEV-WAWS Jacksonville.

Gingrich's camp has inquired about buying air time, say station chiefs in various Florida markets, but as of presstime had not run ads. Rick Santorum has not been on air either, they add, but is expected to. Ron Paul is not expected to make a TV splash in Florida, where ad rates may not match up with his media budget.

The spending pattern thus far in the caucuses and primaries has been a blizzard of TV ads very close to voting time. Florida has not been different, the calls pouring in the morning of January 23rd. "It started off slower than we thought, but that's definitely changed," says Rich Pegram, vice president and general manager at WFTS Tampa. "It's definitely blowing past expectations."

Romney's super PAC is the big spender thus far in Florida, according to multiple station chiefs, with Gingrich's PAC and Romney's own camp trailing. Station execs did not offer up an estimate of how much the politicians are expected to spend in the state; they spent in excess of $12 million in South Carolina, and are expected to easily surpass that in Florida. "South Carolina kept Gingrich in the race," says Wayne Simons, vice president and general manager at WINK Fort Myers. "But he's got to show he can win a big state with a lot of delegates."

So treasured is the Florida vote that even the Obama administration has been putting in calls to check on ad rates some 10 months before the general election. Obama advertising is expected to be on at least one TV outlet's website later in the week. A Democratic-leaning union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), has been on the air too, taking shots at the GOP hopefuls.

As was the case in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- where they kicked more than $7.6 million into Palmetto State station coffers, according to ProPublica -- the Super PACs are making a big impression, with grand expenditures and aggressive messages. "That seems to be the story thus far," says Wasserman, "the roles the Super PACs are playing."