WASHINGTON Newt Gingrich's supporters are celebrating his stunning win in South Carolina, but Mitt Romney has a big jump in the next battleground state thanks to millions of dollars his backers have already poured into the Florida contest for the Republican presidential nomination.
Restore Our Future has spent $5 million in Florida for Romney since mid-December. That was when the political action committee launched get-out-the-vote efforts aimed at hundreds of thousands who have sought to vote by mail or at early-voting centers well before primary on January 31.
The PAC's outlay is more than 20 times the amount spent in Florida so far by any other group supporting a Republican candidate, according to Federal Election Commission filings analyzed by Reuters.
It shows the former Massachusetts governor's organizational advantages in Florida as well as the dramatic impact of "Super PACs" that can swamp a state's airwaves with ads aimed at boosting or tearing down a candidate.
Super PACs, the legacy of a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, can receive unlimited donations. Donations directly to candidates are capped at $2,500 per individual.
Although operating separately from the campaigns, the PACs are intimately familiar with the candidates' strategies. The PACs have become the new bullies on the block during the 2012 campaign, spending more than $31 million so far.
More than half of that -- $16.1 million as of Sunday -- had gone toward "negative" ads, aimed at attacks on a rival.
Among the 14 active PACs formed to support Republican presidential candidates, Restore Our Future has led the way on both fronts, spending $11.4 million during the campaign - the vast majority of that to attack Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Gingrich's December lead in the Republican race melted away before the January 3 Iowa caucuses, thanks to a barrage of ads by the pro-Romney Restore Our Future that questioned Gingrich's ethics and judgment.
In South Carolina, however, the PAC that supports Gingrich, Winning Our Future, was able to fire back with ads attacking Romney, thanks largely to a $5 million donation from billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino owner and longtime Gingrich friend.
Now, with Adelson's donation apparently running out, a question for the Gingrich campaign is whether he will write another big check which could allow Gingrich supporters to counter the constant barrage of messages supporting Romney.
Adelson, who has expressed admiration for Gingrich's advocacy for Israel and publicly supported Gingrich's comment in December that Palestinians are an "invented people," did not return calls seeking comment.
However, The New York Times has reported that Adelson has told friends that he will support Gingrich for as long he is in the race.
C. Edmund Wright, a spokesman for the pro-Gingrich PAC, said the group has raised more money since Adelson's donation. But he would not elaborate, and it will be January 31 before the first detailed financial filing to the FEC is released.
Since mid-December on Florida's airwaves, it has been all Romney, all the time.
"It is clear that organizationally and resource-wise, Governor Romney has had an aggressive commitment in Florida that we haven't seen from other campaigns," said the state Republican Party spokesman Brian Hughes. "There's no denying that visibly Romney has had a lot more going on."
THE MONEY CRUNCH
Politically, economically and racially Florida is much more diverse than Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, which held the first three state nominating contests.
It is also more populous - with 18 million people - more than four million of them registered Republicans. And, it costs a lot to reach all those people. Three of its 10 media markets are among the largest in the United States.
Political activists say that for campaigns, reaching key voters in Florida typically costs at least $1 million a week, and up to $5 million to make a difference for a candidate.
"As (the candidates) make their way to Florida, you start to rely to a greater extent on your paid message just because you don't have the time to do all the hand-shaking," said Republican media strategist Mark Dion.
In Florida, the pro-Romney PAC has taken an approach similar to its assault on Gingrich in Iowa. It has run about $4.4 million in TV ads and direct mailings that blast Gingrich as a Washington insider.
The wave of ads is largely why Republican officials in the state are assuming that a healthy majority of the ballots cast early have gone to Romney. If so, these early voters could provide Romney with a cushion of support even if Gingrich makes another last-minute jump in the polls before the January 31 primary.
Gingrich's cause could receive a boost from a Democratic-leaning source: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The massive public employees' union, which has endorsed Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 elections, has spent $1 million on an anti-Romney TV ad being shown in Tampa, Orlando and West Palm Beach.
The ad, focusing on Romney's tenure leading the private equity firm Bain Capital, alleges that Romney profited from Medicare fraud out of "corporate greed."
A wild card in Florida also could be what happens with Make Us Great Again, the Super PAC that supported Texas Governor Rick Perry before he dropped out of the race last week and endorsed Gingrich.
Whether wealthy donors have started backing Gingrich could become clear on January 31, when the PACs will have to file their first disclosures of the campaign season, covering last year's money. Disclosure for January's money will come in late February.
However well the pro-Gingrich PAC is doing, Gingrich has conceded that his campaign is in a money crunch heading into Florida.
Moments after TV networks declared him the winner in South Carolina late Saturday, Gingrich took to Twitter to ask for donations so he could "deliver the knockout punch in Florida."
He hit on the subject again during his victory speech.
"I need your help in reaching out to people in Florida," Gingrich told his supporters. "We don't have the kind of money that at least one of the candidates does. ... we've proven here in South Carolina that people power with the right ideas beats big money. And with your help we're going to prove it again in Florida. "
A PROVING GROUND
The other two candidates in the race - Rick Santorum and Ron Paul - lag significantly in the quest for money.
The Super PAC supporting former Pennsylvania senator Santorum, the Red White and Blue Fund, has spent $225,000 on mailings and phone calls to contact Florida voters, likely indicating a plan for a targeted approach.
Revolution PAC, which supports Texas congressman Paul, has spent $1,000 on an ad promoting the candidate. Another pro-Paul PAC, Endorse Liberty, has chimed in with $22,500 in anti-Gingrich and pro-Paul ads in Florida.
"If you want to prove yourself as a campaign of national stature," said Hughes, Florida "is where you need to prove that you're big enough and tough enough."