Republican Presidential Debate: Florida in the 2012 Spotlight

VIDEO: Jon Karl reports on the neck and neck race for the republican nomination.
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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.

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