Florida will be the center of Republicans' political universe for the next three days, starting with a televised GOP presidential debate Thursday night and wrapping up Saturday with a presidential straw poll.
Get used to it.
The spotlight will remain on Florida long after the last vote is tallied this weekend.
Sunshine State Republican leaders are poised to throw the GOP presidential primary schedule into disarray by scheduling Florida's contest in mid-February, in defiance of national party edicts — a move that could cause other early-voting states to move up their primaries in protest.
And it is looking more and more like Florida will be decisive in the developing showdown between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
With Romney and Perry potentially splitting wins in the early 2012 presidential contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, Florida — angling to bat fifth in the order — looms large.
"It will be the death knell if you don't win Florida," predicts Lew Oliver, chairman of the state's Orange County Republicans.
Florida primary voters ended Romney's 2008 presidential run, when Arizona Sen. John McCain pulled off a win on his way to the GOP nomination. (One caveat this time around: In 2008, Florida was a winner-take-all-delegates state; next year, delegates will be awarded to candidates in proportion to the votes they get.)
So the primary could either end a candidate's campaign, as Oliver predicts, or put a sizable dent in someone's momentum.
Given the state's size, demographics and historic influence as a tossup state in the general election, it's a "big deal, whenever it holds its primary," says Peter Brown of the Quinnipiac University Poll. "It's not just symbolic, but reflective of what will happen in the South."
We look at four things we can learn from Florida this primary season:
1. Polls confirm a two-man GOP race.
Going into Thursday's debate, two Florida polls show Perry and Romney in a close race, and both far outpacing the rest of the Republican field.
A Quinnipiac University Poll released Thursday morning shows that 31 percent of registered Florida Republicans surveyed named Perry as their top choice, with Romney the pick of 22 percent. The rest of the field, led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 8 percent, trailed badly. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
In a head-to-head matchup, Perry outpolled Romney 46 percent to 38 percent.
"Perry's candidacy embodies the view and values, and the image of a Southern-dominated Republican Party," says Quinnipiac's Brown. And Perry, not Romney, is the candidate best positioned to attract supporters of the also-rans when they exit the race, pollsters say.
A survey by Republican pollsters at War Room Logistics, as reported by the Miami Herald, had Romney and Perry in a dead heat, with both attracting 25 percent of likely GOP voters surveyed. Gingrich again topped the rest of the pack at 8 percent.
The poll also shows that in a general matchup with President Obama, Perry runs about even with Obama among Florida voters surveyed, and Romney has a slight lead over the president. The War Room poll has Romney even with Obama, and Perry trailing.
2. Social Security won't sink Perry.
Romney in recent days has doubled down on criticism of Perry's past statements about Social Security. And some Florida Republicans have also hit Perry for referring to the program that provides benefits to the elderly as a Ponzi scheme.
But Florida Republican voters, it turns out, appear to largely agree with Perry.
When asked by Quinnipiac whether it was fair for Perry to refer to the program as a Ponzi scheme, more than half of those surveyed said "yes." And when asked if they believe Perry wants to fix or to end Social Security, 60 percent said the governor wants to fix it. Fourteen percent said they believe he wants to end it.
"Perry may, according to some analysts, have problems with independent voters in a general election," Brown says. "But his views and values on most issues, including Social Security, appear to be right in the middle of the GOP mainstream." Even in Florida, with its large elderly population.
3. Florida will remake the primary calendar.
If Florida Republicans schedule their primary for Feb. 14, the presidential contest season would most likely begin Jan. 15 with the Iowa caucuses, says Josh Putnam, a political scientist at Davidson College who tracks the calendar.
The national party's original schedule had the contests kicking off Feb. 6 in Iowa.
Florida — like other states including Arizona and, likely, Michigan — would pay a price for defying the national party by scheduling primaries before "Super Tuesday" on March 6. The national party has threatened to cut state delegates to the national convention in Tampa in half.
"I don't think the powers that be in Florida care all that much about the delegates," Putnam says. "Ideally, Florida would like to be the decisive contest." Putnam, however, sees the race extending beyond the Sunshine State and into April contests in more Romney-friendly territory.
4. This straw poll may actually mean something.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's summer win at the Iowa straw poll has been dismissed by critics as bought and paid for, with little lasting effect.
But unlike Iowa, a pay-to-play event where campaigns buy admission tickets for supporters, Florida's 3,500 expected straw poll participants are party members selected in July by lottery and by county chairmen. And nobody pays to participate. Romney and Bachmann don't plan to speak, but all the candidates will appear on the ballot (except newcomer Gary Johnson, who qualified too late to make the cut).
"It's very, very representative of where the state party is, politically," says Oliver, a Perry supporter who is running to be vice chairman of the state Republican Party.
This is the state party's fifth straw poll; each one has predicted the primary winner, Oliver says. (The party did not hold the poll in 2008.)
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