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Romney's path to the White House runs through Florida

TAMPA, Fla. — No state has loomed larger in presidential politics in recent years as Florida, and this year is no exception.

Mitt Romney's path to the White House, like George W. Bush and John McCain before him, runs through Florida, the host to this week's Republican National Convention in Tampa.

Related: GOP elders describe high stakes for Romney in Tampa

The Sunshine State seems will assume just as important of a role in deciding the presidential election as it had in recent cycles, contributing to Republicans' decision to place their quadrennial gathering here, rather than other contending host cities: Phoenix and Salt Lake City.

"I think it's a huge advantage," said Florida Republican consultant Brian Hughes of the convention's placement. He noted that every network affiliate throughout the state would provide extensive coverage of the convention.

"It really energizes the base. You've got every key activist in the base on the Republican side engaged in this," Hughes said, adding that independent voters won't be able to escape the week's festivities and speeches, either.

Recommended: Some prominent Republicans won’t be in Tampa

Indeed, President Barack Obama and the Romney campaign -- joined by their supporting super PACs -- have already spent $110 million on advertising in Florida alone, according to NBC News ad-tracking sources, accounting for almost a fifth of all ad spending in the entire election. Team Romney and Team Obama are about even, at $55 million to date.

The GOP convention will be a carefully-staged operation engineered to selling the party and Romney to a national audience. But now, it will be a shortened affair after convention organizers canceled the first day of activities due to an impending hurricane.

But at the same time, Republicans hope the week full of fanfare and heavy local media coverage will help deliver Florida in November for Romney, for whom the path to 270 electoral votes is slim without this swing state. If Romney were to lose Florida, he would need to sweep every single of the 8 states rated a "toss-up" on NBC’s battleground map: Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Romney won the state's late January primary, and Florida, in many ways, serves as a microcosm for the general election.

Florida was one of the states hardest hit by the collapse of the housing market in 2008, sending the state spiraling into an especially deep recession. The unemployment rate for the state is 8.8 percent, higher than the national rate of 8.2 percent.

The economy in Florida "will likely be a real drag on President Obama," said Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor, whose district includes central Tampa.

"People's property values have not recovered, and if people had savings, it would have been in their home," she said. "For all the talk about jobs and innovation and education, people may look at what they're worth and decide on that basis."

But if the state is a perfect example of the dangers for Obama, it's also a state that illustrates some of the challenges that Romney most overcome.

Obama led Romney by three percent, 49 to 46 percent, in a Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll released last week. But Obama's lead is also built, in part, upon advantages he holds with women and Hispanics, mirroring his edge the president holds with those two groups nationally.

Obama leads 53 to 41 percent among Florida women, and 61 to 31 percent among Hispanics (despite the Republican sympathies of the state's large Cuban American population). To compare, in 2008, Obama beat Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) in Florida 52-47 percent among women voters, according to exit polls, and 57-42 percent among Latinos.

The convention's lineup will put some of the GOP's rising women and Latino leaders in the spotlight, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), a conservative darling whom many conservatives Romney had hoped Romney would pick as his running mate. Rubio will introduce Romney before the presumptive Republican nominee's acceptance speech.

The convention will also give Romney and the rest of the Republican Party a chance to make their case for Medicare reforms in a state where seniors and retirees exert an outsized influence in elections.

Presumptive vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's two budgets as chairman of the House Budget Committee propose major changes to Medicare, principally by turning it into a system where seniors would receive a voucher — or premium support – to seek health insurance. (A later version of Ryan's plan would allow retirees to maintain traditional Medicare.)

The fact that Romney and Ryan have promised no changes for Americans over the age of 55 hasn't stopped Medicare from becoming a central issue in the campaign, even moreso in Florida. Ryan last weekend took his case on Medicare to seniors at The Villages, the sprawling retirement community just about two hours from Tampa.

And in the end, geography could prove decisive in determining the winner of Florida's 29 electoral votes in November.

Hillsbrough Country — which encompasses Tampa — and adjacent Pinellas County — which includes much of St. Petersburg — have emerged as a bellwether for the rest of the state.

"I find it hard to think they'll speak to the hardworking voters here of central Florida," Castor said of the Romney-Ryan's regional appeal. "People are independent-minded…They would really have to moderate their message. What is their vision besides large tax cuts for corporate America and the top one or two percent?"

Even at the apex of his political strength, Obama only bested McCain by about 10,000 of 430,000 votes cast in Hillsbrough in 2008; Obama's 53-45 percent victory in Pinellas was more comfortable.

George W. Bush won Hillsbrough in both of his presidential campaigns, but split the difference in the slightly more Democratic Pinellas County. Bush lost Pinellas in 2000, but won by 226 votes in 2004.

"Every poll that's looked at Florida in recent weeks — at the core of them, they're all within the margins," Hughes said. "It's a dogfight."