Editor's note: James A. Barnes is former chief political correspondent at the National Journal and is part of CNN's Election Night decision team. He is a contributor to "The State of American Politics" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001) and has been a guest lecturer at Oxford University.
(CNN) -- As Florida Republican operatives look past Tuesday's primary, they are clear about what it will take to carry their state in November -- winning swing voters.
While the 2012 GOP presidential race has sometimes seemed like a competition among the Republican White House hopefuls over who can appeal to the party's hard core, the fall campaign will be about winning the middle, according to a CNN survey of 47 Florida GOP insiders -- state legislators, political consultants, fundraisers, veterans of previous primary campaigns, tea party advocates and a variety of other party activists.
Which do you think is relatively more important to winning Florida in the general election? Having a nominee who can win swing voters: 83% Having a nominee who excites the conservative base: 13% Both (volunteered): 4%
That overwhelming verdict comes in part because of the belief that conservatives will show up at the polls just to vote against the incumbent, President Barack Obama, even if they're not thrilled with the GOP nominee. "Swing is key," said one Florida GOP insider. "The base will be motivated anyway." Echoed another: "Conservatives will be there regardless."
Another key voting bloc in Florida in the general election will be Hispanic and Latino voters. The GOP insiders thought that Mitt Romney would be their best bet in the fall.
Who do you think would have the strongest appeal to Hispanic and Latino voters in the general election? Mitt Romney: 64% Newt Gingrich: 33% Rich Santorum: 1%
When the Florida insiders were asked how easy it would be to get behind a prospective nominee, only one candidate among the remaining contenders seems to face a severe enthusiasm deficit when it comes to the fall campaign -- Texas Rep. Ron Paul. His isolationist views on national security are anathema to many Republicans, and his libertarian bent can also cause some concerns among social conservatives.
Would you have a hard time enthusiastically supporting any of these candidates if he was the nominee? Ron Paul: 71% Newt Gingrich: 28% Rick Santorum: 24% Mitt Romney: 9%
"Ron Paul is Ron Paul, but Newt simply doesn't fit the profile of a winning GOP candidate in Florida," said one party insider who is unaffiliated with any of the campaigns. "You have to be able to excite the conservative base and not turn off swing voters. Swing voters (would) flee from Newt faster than that golf ball his by Alan Shepard took off on the moon."
Polls that currently show Romney with the best chance to defeat Obama are one of the reasons why the former Massachusetts governor is a favorite among the party establishment. "I'd have a hard time supporting anyone other than Romney because I know none of the others can beat Obama," said one Florida GOP insider.
Still, another Florida GOP insider lamented, "I think this is the weakest field we have ever put forth in my lifetime.
The CNN Florida insiders were surveyed from Thursday afternoon through Saturday. The survey was conducted over the Internet. The Florida insiders were given anonymity for their individual answers to encourage candid responses. Just under half of the insiders said they were formally aligned with one of the presidential campaigns, and half said they had neither endorsed any candidate nor were they working for one. Overall, one-third of the insiders backed Romney, while just under one-sixth supported Gingrich. If only the responses from insiders currently unaligned with any of the candidates were tabulated, the results predicted the primary vote would be Romney 39%, Gingrich 32%, Santorum 15%, Paul 10%, and other 2%. Here are the names of the participants in the survey: Brian Ballard, Slater Bayliss, Kim Bertron, Sally Bradshaw, Bertica Cabrera Morris, Christian Camara, Al Cardenas, David Cardenas, Len Collins, Nelson Diaz, Jose Diaz, Brett Doster, Charlie Dudley, Tom Feeney, Jose Fuentes, Rich Heffley, Ann Herberger, Brecht Heuchan, Christina Johnson, David Johnson, Frederick Leonhardt, Carlos M. Lopez-Cantera, Jose Mallea, Alberto E. Martinez, Nancy McGowan, Will McKinley, Kathy Mears, Paul Mitchell, Kris Money, Ana Navarro, Esther Nuhfer, Jeanette Nunez, Andy Palmer, Van B. Poole, Marc Reichelderfer, Todd Reid, Jim Rimes, Monica Rodriguez, Sarah Rumpf, Terry Sullivan, Frank Terraferma, Todd Thomson, Cory Tilley, Tom A. Tillison, Greg Turbeville, Susan Wiles and Brian Yablonski.