Will Florida Become the New Iowa?

Will Florida Become the New Iowa?

By Scott Conroy - March 31, 2011

The date is still up in the air, but one facet of the 2012 Florida primary seems certain: it will play a pivotal, if not decisive, role in determining the Republican presidential nominee.

With a crowded field of viable candidates, no clear frontrunner, and the potential of a schism within the GOP along ideological lines, there is a high possibility that there will be different winners in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- the nation's first three voting states. And without anyone harnessing significant momentum, Florida would likely become the biggest prize on the road to the nomination.

The two additional delegates it picked up after the 2010 census pushed Florida's Electoral College count to 29, solidifying its role as the most valuable swing state in the 2012 general election. And just as in 2008, Florida figures to leave its mark on the race well before November.

The Republican National Committee has stipulated that only Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada may hold their votes before March 1, and while Florida's tentative primary date of Jan. 31 would violate that rule, state Republicans are working feverishly to maintain their early influence without losing delegates at the Tampa convention.

Despite the recent tough talk from the South Carolina and Iowa GOP chairs, officials have more quietly conveyed confidence that they will eventually resolve their differences and that Florida will find itself as the fifth voting state -- and first significant delegate prize -- in next year’s nominating contest.

And at this point, Florida is anyone's game to win.

In a state as large and expensive as Florida, a candidate's cash flow and media exposure have traditionally mattered more than in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the currency is early and sustained retail politicking. But that doesn't mean that candidates can ignore the local touch in Florida.

"The demographics of this state are really complex, and you're really going to need someone who can get a feel quickly for where the shifts have been, based on the census data," says Susan McManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. "In a crowded field where you need to mobilize quickly to raise money or get people to a rally, a brand new candidate running in Florida would soon discover the complexities of this state are difficult to deal with."

Over the past month, the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in Florida has picked up to an extent that may not yet rival what has transpired in the earliest voting states but has nonetheless indicated that the likely candidates recognize how key Florida's role figures to be.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's recently touted fundraising team includes two veteran Floridians -- Ann Herberger and Gretchen Picotte. Herberger worked for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2008, as did Sally Bradshaw, another longtime GOP Florida strategist, who recently signed on with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's PAC.

Despite losing those two key Florida staffers, Romney earlier this month picked up the support of State Senator John Thrasher, the former chairman of the Florida GOP and a powerful voice in the state legislature.

"Like 2008, there is no clear favorite going in, and a close early contest ensures all eyes will be on the Sunshine State," Republican Florida political consultant Adam Goodman told RCP. "With that said, Haley Barbour is assembling one of the best Florida teams, while both Romney and Huckabee sport the advantage of having run here before in a state where name ID is neither cheap or easy."

In the 2008 Florida primary, Romney finished second to eventual nominee John McCain, while former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee came in a distant fourth.

If Huckabee does mount another presidential run, he could be well-positioned to exceed that performance. The winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses changed his residency from Arkansas to Florida, where he has been building a multi-million dollar beach house.

But Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolis, a personal friend of Huckabee's who endorsed his campaign in 2008, told RCP that the former governor "seems to be enjoying his private life" and has not shown signs of rebuilding a political organization in the state.

Haridopolis is preparing to ramp up his own campaign for the right to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in what figures to be one of the pivotal U.S. Senate races of 2012 and is being heavily courted by the likely Republican White House hopefuls.

"We've received calls from all the major candidates," Haridopolis said, later adding that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was an exception. "They will be making their way through Tallahassee, and they want to let us know their interest in pursuing the presidency."

Haridopolis said that he was unlikely to endorse this time around, in part because he wanted to unite the party behind his own candidacy. But even as he touted the strengths of Romney, Pawlenty and Barbour, he suggested that underdogs would also have a shot.

"We want to give the lesser-knowns the same ability to compete in Florida, and we believe strongly that after those four primaries, they could have the national name identification by that point and the ability to raise resources to compete in a state like Florida," he said. "I think our state has moved considerably to the right on financial issues, and that's going to be the real calling card for people to find success in Florida."

Whether he and other influential surrogates hold to this pledge of neutrality remains to be seen, but in Florida, at least, endorsements still seem to matter. As the 2008 GOP primary campaign in Florida entered its final week, Romney was running neck-and-neck with McCain in the polls and appeared to have an even shot at reviving his campaign with a victory there.

Three days before the primary, however, McCain picked up the endorsement of then Gov. Charlie Crist, who enjoyed high popularity among Republicans at the time. The Arizona senator ended up defeating Romney by five points.

Two Florida Republicans would seem to have similar kingmaker potential this time around. One is freshman Sen. Marco Rubio, already a conservative luminary. The other is Crist's predecessor in the governor's office, former Gov. Jeb Bush, who proved his ability to attract support among a diverse set of voters and continues to enjoy a positive legacy that few Florida Republicans have forgotten.

"The Florida primary would be a celebratory coronation if the name Jeb Bush were in play," Adam Goodman said in a prediction to RCP. "Short of that, all plausible scenarios are just that."

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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