MELISSA BLOCK, host: In Tampa today, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney opened his Florida campaign headquarters. The state is likely to play a key role in the GOP nominating process. State officials are still deciding on a date but say they plan to hold an early primary, one that may jump ahead of Super Tuesday, on March 6th.
NPR's Greg Allen reports that Romney also took the opportunity today to reach out to a large and influential group of voters, Hispanic Republicans.
GREG ALLEN: Everyone likes to be loved, and when campaign season comes around, Florida gets more than its share.
MITT ROMNEY (REPUBLICAN, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE): This is just a state that's like the whole country. I love Florida, love being here, love the people of this state, in part because you understand what makes America, America.
ALLEN: So far, Florida is returning Mitt Romney's affection. He leads Texas Governor Rick Perry and other Republican candidates in the polls here, in part because he's been here a lot and built a good organization.
ROMNEY: Air Force, uh? Appreciate your service.
ALLEN: Romney met 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. 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. And to do well here, Romney has to do well with one of the nation's fastest growing groups, Hispanics.
ROMNEY: Our party is the place where their values and their aspirations will be fulfilled. And the other party has a good pitch, but not a good delivery.
ALLEN: Romney gave a breakfast speech this morning in Tampa to the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. About a hundred Hispanic political leaders from across the country attended. He talked about President Obama, the president's failure to restart the economy and today's abysmal jobs report. And without mentioning his name, Romney also seemed to be taking on his new rival, Texas Governor Rick Perry.
ROMNEY: 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.
ALLEN: In Texas, Rick Perry signed a bill that extended in-state tuition benefits to residents regardless of citizenship status. Perry's stance on immigration may hurt him with some conservatives, but it's seen as giving him an advantage with Hispanics.
At today's breakfast, Romney was warmly received by the group of Hispanic Republicans, which included Gabriela Clark from Tampa.
GABRIELA CLARK: Oh, I like it very much. It's just what I wanted to hear.
ALLEN: Clark said she liked Romney's talk about creating jobs. Romney's planning to roll out his own jobs plan next week, two days before President Obama unveils his before a joint session of Congress. And she doesn't think his 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 to serve on a state commission by Rick Perry. She said, as a Hispanic, she's concerned that state and federal policies use common sense and treat everyone fairly, even children of illegal immigrants.
MARISA OLIVARES RUMMELL: This is the only county 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. 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.
ALLEN: Besides Mitt Romney, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has also opened Florida headquarters. In fact, he's 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.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Tampa.
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