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Early voting opens statewide in Florida

James Novogrod / NBC News

an election worker outside City Hall in St. Petersburg, Fla. Early voting opened in 62 counties Saturday, including here in Pinellas County.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- While voters in South Carolina turned out for the state's hotly contested GOP primary Saturday, delivering Newt Gingrich his first win in a presidential primary, another contest was quietly taking shape hundreds of miles to the south.

Early voting opened statewide in Florida, drawing Republican voters to polling stations 10 days before the state's Jan. 31 presidential primary.

Here in Pinellas County, at St. Petersburg City Hall, voters arrived in a slow trickle through the afternoon.

Retired salesman Paul Ibanez cast a vote for the former House speaker.

Ibanez said Gingrich's performance at the South Carolina debates convinced him to abandon his support for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

"He's very knowledgeable on all the issues. Very good on history, very good on presentation," Ibanez said about Gingrich.

Other counties, including Miami-Dade, a hotbed of Florida's Latino community, reportedly saw higher activity.

The day marked only the latest step in a steady rollout of this state's primary.

According to the Florida GOP, more than 185,000 Republicans have already cast their votes via absentee ballot. And around 12,000 more Republicans have participated in early voting in the five counties where polling opened last week. (Those counties are not subject to a new law shortening the number of early voting days across the state. There are 67 counties total in Florida.)

Given those numbers, party officials are speculating that 2012 could mark a record year for participation in the country's first closed primary. About 1.9 million Republicans voted in the contest in 2008. There are about 4.1 million registered Republican voters statewide.

"Registered Republicans in Florida are eager to be a part of this process," said Brian Hughes, the spokesman for the state GOP.

The perception of enthusiasm about the race here seemed to draw at least one campaign near the process Saturday. Former St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker – who is the Romney campaign's senior urban policy adviser – cast an early vote for his candidate after addressing about a dozen supporters outside City Hall.

"Not just the South Carolinians are voting today -- the Floridians are voting today," Baker said to applause.

Press releases went out Friday for at least three such events involving Romney surrogates across the state.

Observers close to the race say Romney's campaign, which established a headquarters in Tampa over the summer, is encouraging its base to vote early in a state where, so far, it maintains a lead in polls.

In the wake of Gingrich's win in South Carolina, competition over that lead will likely only heat up.

"They’re trying to help encourage the news that early voting is open, and obviously they’re trying to show momentum," Hughes said of Romney's campaign.