Republican Presidential Debate: Florida in the 2012 Spotlight

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Move over Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. You've been hogging the spotlight for quite some time and now it's shining on Florida.

The GOP candidates will take the stage at the Fox News/Google debate in Orlando this evening for the second Florida debate in two weeks and the importance of the Sunshine State is roaring into focus. If the election remains the two-man race it has been since Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered last month, Florida could be a tiebreaker and cement either former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or Perry as the nominee.

If Perry takes Iowa and South Carolina, states with large conservative and evangelical bases, while Romney wins New Hampshire, a state that has become his firewall and where he owns a home, and Nevada, a state he won in 2008 that has a large Mormon population, then it most likely will all come down to Florida, analysts say.

Adam Goodman, a Florida GOP political strategist who is currently unaffiliated, calls Florida the "lynch pin to success" when it comes to becoming the GOP nominee. But winning Florida in the general election will also be essential for the GOP nominee and President Obama, she said.

"As far as I'm concerned, all roads to the White House lead to Florida. Some might argue that road is down the I-4 corridor," Goodman said, referring to the highway through Central Florida with voter-heavy populations.

"Winning the Republican nomination fight without Florida is nearly inconceivable. Winning the presidency without Florida is inconceivable. As important as the first fight is, the ultimate fight will be in the fall of next year and that will run through Florida."

Although Florida's primary date is uncertain, it's one of the states pushing to be early in the nomination contests and a likely date is Jan. 31, which would be right after the early states but before Super Tuesday.

"Whatever the final date is, it will be the first major primary nomination showdown after South Carolina," Goodman said. "Jan. 31, Feb.1, it doesn't matter. It will be early and follow South Carolina."

It's clear that Perry heads into this evening as the front-runner in the state. A Quinnipiac University poll shows Perry leading Romney 28 percent to 22 percent with registered GOP voters, if former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is included in the survey. Without Palin, who has yet to announce her 2012 intentions, Perry leads 31 percent to 22 percent.

The poll wasn't all bad news for Romney, however. When up against Obama, Romney bests the president 47 percent to 40 percent, while Perry up against Obama is a statistical tie. The president earned his lowest job-approval number rating ever in a Quinnipiac poll in this survey: 39 percent approve, while 57 percent disapprove.

The important political week in Florida doesn't end with the debate this evening. The Florida GOP is holding the Presidential 5 or P5 conference this weekend at the same location as the debate. The 3,500 delegates who are attending the conference will vote Saturday in a straw poll.

Unlike other straw polls with more fanfare, such as the one in Ames, Iowa, this one has a good track record of predicting GOP nominees with every winner going on to be the party's nominee. The Romney campaign announced earlier in the year it wouldn't participate in any of the straw polls throughout the race. His name will still be on the ballot, but he is not actively campaigning nor is his camp working grassroots activists to win the straw poll, unlike the Perry campaign.

Sally Bradshaw, a longtime Florida GOP strategist who has worked for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Romney during the last cycle but is now unaffiliated, says the choice is a "calculated risk" for Romney. But the choice to save money for a prolonged battle in Florida, something they did not do the last time around, "could be the right move. It's two campaigns with very different approaches to the straw poll."

"It rubbed some people the wrong way at the grassroots level," Bradshaw said, referring to Romney's choosing not to play in the straw poll. "These are the people that will be going door to door, making the phone calls, pulling 10 people in their homes to advocate for candidates and at the nominating caucuses for the delegates there was some concern expressed about Romney's decision not to participate. Now there is an additional challenge with the emergence of Rick Perry. He immediately hired a team in Florida, a really credible group and they are actively campaigning for delegates."

Romney was in Miami this week and he went after Perry at a town hall on the issue of social security while trying to frame his own plan. Romney took issue with the way Perry discusses Social Security in his book, that the states would handle the program better than a national program.

"In my opinion, this does not work in any way, shape or form," Romney said at the town hall.

It's clear this is something Romney will press at the debate tonight with his campaign sending out releases pointing out that Perry has called the popular entitlement program a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie" throughout the day.

With Florida's high population of retirees, it seems as though it could be a winning strategy. When Bradshaw worked on Jeb Bush's gubernatorial campaign in 1994, which he lost, Bradshaw said it was partly because of "scare calls" voters received, saying he would eliminate Social Security. But Bradshaw points out that 1994 is not 2011, with the constant access the electorate has to news on the Internet and cable television. Bradshaw said that for Perry, Social Security could turn out to be "not a problem issue, but a winning issue."

"Rick Perry in his campaign is raising an issue. He knows the system is broken and he thinks he can fix it," Bradshaw said. "He's straightforward and he says what he means and he means what he says, and that contrasts himself with Gov. Romney, who faces challenges with a record that has changed over time. He has had one position in the past, but may have different positions now that he's a candidate for president. The Perry team has made a conscious decision to stay the course."

Unlike New Hampshire and Iowa, where voters expect to meet and hear from their candidates, Bradshaw points out, Florida voters are just starting to tune in now. It's a much more diverse electorate than the early states with a population that looks much more like the rest of the country.

There is a large Hispanic population, but it's quite diverse. Conservative Cuban-Americans in Miami are not as focused on immigration as an issue as Floridians of Mexican or Puerto Rican descent in central and south Florida. Close to 50 percent of the population is older than 55, nearing retirement or already there.

Bradshaw points out that Florida's retirees are from other parts of the country. The west coast of Florida is populated with Midwestern transplants while east coast retirees are Northeastern arrivals. Many people, Bradshaw says, are "bringing the culture, opinions, and the lens they view political issues."

There's also the high number of active-duty military personnel who vote overseas as well.

Romney does have an advantage in that he competed in Florida in 2008. He has done it before and can learn from his mistakes. He came close, but lost to John McCain, giving the nomination to the Arizona senator with that victory. The last time around, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's endorsement gave McCain that final boost after his New Hampshire and South Carolina wins to take Florida.

This time around, there doesn't appear to be an endorsement with that kind of significance in the wings. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are unlikely to endorse. The latter being on the top of all the candidates' vice presidential lists, it doesn't make sense for Rubio to back any of the contenders.

Jason Roe is a GOP strategist who worked on Romney's 2008 campaign, but also served as a chief of staff to Florida Rep. Tom Feeney and knows the state well. He is unaffiliated and points out that if Romney had spent less in South Carolina and more in Florida in 2008, he might have been successful and that's a lesson he has surely learned from.

"There's clearly been an erosion in Romney's support last time around in terms of donors and an erosion in political establishment support than he had last time," Goodman said. "A lot of it is different, people who are committed to McCain have moved to Romney, but a lot of people who were committed to Romney had moved to [Tim] Pawlenty and to [Jon] Huntsman, and now Perry."

Goodman agrees with Bradshaw that when it comes to the Texas governor and his Social Security stance, it might not be all bad, potentially making Romney's hard push on the issue in Florida a bust.

"Republicans own bold ideas and bold rhetoric," Goodman said. "When people see you step away, they think you don't believe it, but when you are bold, they see you believe it. He's so blunt about the issues and Romney is giving the appearance of trying to be all things to all people."