Florida Poised to Play ‘Absolutely Decisive’ Role in GOP Primary

CHICAGO, IL – With all the talk about the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire in the Republican primary, it is easy to forget that the one state that could settle the GOP fight once and for all is actually Florida.

The Sunshine State is set to vote fourth in the primary, starting in late January after Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have each had their turn. If a candidate has run the table up to that point, Florida Republicans could provide the final push in crowning the nominee. If no one candidate has taken the first three states, then the victor in Florida would hold all the momentum heading into February.

“All signs point to Florida being absolutely decisive for the Republican primary. It is the state that is most representative of the country and helped John McCain secure the GOP nomination in 2008,” said Carlos Curbelo, a Republican strategist in Florida who has worked on campaigns in the past and currently advises Rick Perry’s bid.

To gauge the importance of Florida, consider that the state hosted not one but two GOP debates in September, that it will be the site of the party’s 2012 convention in Tampa, and that it will host the final presidential debate next year, set for Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton.

In recent months, candidates have flocked south to win over voters. According to a recent CNN/TIME/ORC poll, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney currently leads in Florida with 30 percent support, ahead of Herman Cain at 18 percent and Newt Gingrich and Perry, both at 9 percent.

“Governor Perry has the most sophisticated ground operation in the state and the resources necessary to compete for every vote. Being the governor of a large diverse state also gives him a key advantage,” Curbelo said.

For any candidate to win the Florida caucus, convincing the state’s large population of Latino voters will be crucial. Florida has around 1.5 million Latinos, accounting for a little over 15 percent of the state’s population – and they are surprisingly conservative. While President Obama still consistently polls ahead of an unnamed Republican candidate there, his margin in Florida is much slimmer than the advantages he enjoys in other states with strong Latino populations, like Colorado and New Mexico.

In a sign of the state’s conservative leanings, just last year Florida elected Tea Party darling Marco Rubio to the Senate. While some might wonder how that is possible given Rubio’s immigration policy – he opposes giving amnesty to undocumented workers – it is worth remembering the unique makeup of Florida’s Latino population. As Guillermo Martinez noted in a Sun-Sentinel story earlier this fall, Latinos in Florida are not the same as Latinos in Texas or Nevada or other states.

Around 540,000 of Florida’s 1.5 million Latino voters are of Cuban origin, a group mostly based near Miami. Cuban immigrants are eligible to apply for citizenship after five years in the United States. Perhaps that is in part why there is a slew of Republican Cuban-American politicians such as Rubio and, over on the House side of the Capitol, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart.

The second-most prominent faction of Florida Latinos are Puerto Ricans, with around 480,000 in Florida. As Martinez wrote, many Puerto Ricans in the central part of the state “have migrated directly from Puerto Rico, own small businesses, and live in the suburbs.” They have split their votes in recent years, supporting Rubio and the state’s former Gov. Jeb Bush on the GOP side but backing Obama in 2008.

It is not only in the Republican primary but also in the general election that Florida looks set to play a crucial role. The Sunshine State has voted for the eventual winner in nine of the last 10 presidential elections. But looking at his job approval ratings, Obama currently faces an uphill battle there, as noted by Republican National Committee political director Rick Wiley in a strategy memo released Tuesday.

“One year is an eternity in politics. Much can happen and much will change between now and Election Day. But with one year to go, the President’s climb to be re-elected is getting steeper by the day,” Wiley wrote.

However, according to Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, an analyst for the Latino Decisions website and a professor at the University of Southern California, the Republican candidates thus far have not done much to court the Latino vote nationwide because it is not important to them in the primaries, with the possible exception of Florida.

“Republicans have not been very proactive in bringing their message to Latinos,” Jeffe said on the Latino Decisions website, adding, “Frankly, some of the positions the primary candidates must take to attract Latinos would not be very popular with the Republican base. That base is what matters at this time.”

Hanging over the entire political world in Florida is the recent dispute between Rubio and Univision that has caused such a furor in the past month. Earlier this fall allies of Rubio asked the Republican candidates to boycott a tentative Jan. 29 debate on Univision, claiming that Univision attempted to use a report about Rubio’s brother-in-law – convicted of drug trafficking in 1989 – to pressure the lawmaker into appearing on one of the network’s shows. Univision denied the claim, but many of the GOP candidates bailed on the network’s debate anyway.

It’s just another twist in the ongoing – and ever-more-intriguing – battle for Florida, a fight that looks set to heat up even more as this winter’s jam-packed primary season approaches.

Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.