Everyone likes to be loved, and when campaign season comes around, Florida gets more than its share of adoration.
"This is just a state that's like the whole country," said Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "I love Florida, love being here, love the people of this state, in part because you understand what makes America America."
So far, Florida is returning his affection. He leads Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican candidates in the polls here, in part because he has been here a lot and built a good organization.
The former Massachusetts governor was in the Sunshine State on Friday, meeting with supporters at his new campaign office near downtown Tampa.
Four years ago, Florida played an important part in the Republican contest — it held an early primary that violated party rules. Even so, John McCain ran here and won, a victory that sealed his comeback and set the stage for his nomination.
Romney is hoping Florida can play that same role in his campaign. Indeed, this year the state is likely to play a key part in the GOP nominating process. State officials say they plan to hold an early primary — one that may jump ahead of Super Tuesday on March 6.
And to do well here, Romney has to do well with one of the nation's fastest-growing groups — Hispanics.
Taking On The President, And His GOP Rival
Romney gave a breakfast speech Friday in Tampa to the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. About 100 Hispanic political leaders from across the country attended.
He talked about President Obama, the president's failure to restart the economy, and Friday's abysmal jobs report. And, without mentioning his name, Romney also seemed to be taking on his new rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
"As governor, I vetoed legislation that would have provided in-state tuition breaks to illegal immigrants, and I strengthened the authority of our state troopers to enforce existing immigration laws. As president, I will lead on this very critical issue. I love legal immigration. I will stop illegal immigration."
In Texas, Perry signed a bill that extended in-state tuition benefits to residents regardless of citizenship status. That stance on immigration may hurt Perry with some conservatives, but it's seen as giving him an advantage with Hispanics.
At Friday's breakfast, Romney was warmly received by the group of Hispanic Republicans, which included Gabriela Clark from Tampa.
"It's just what I wanted to hear," she said.
Clark said she liked Romney's talk about creating jobs. He plans to roll out his own jobs plan next week — two days before President Obama unveils his plan before a joint session of Congress. And Clark doesn't think Romney's hard line on immigration will hurt him with Hispanics.
But another Hispanic Republican, Marisa Olivares Rummell, sees it slightly differently. She's from Texas, where she was appointed by Rick Perry to serve on a state commission.
She said that as a Hispanic, she is concerned that state and federal policies use common sense and treat everyone fairly — even children of illegal immigrants.
"This is the only country they know. This is the language they know. And yet, when they grow up, they can't get a job because they're not legal," she said. "What are we going to do with those children? And a lot of them are very talented, very intelligent young children. To me, I think that's an issue that must be addressed."
Besides Romney, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has also opened a Florida headquarters; in fact, he is running his national campaign from here. Michele Bachmann was here on a campaign swing last week, and other candidates will be here soon. This month, there are two debates scheduled in Florida, and a Republican straw poll.