Here's a news flash for every Republican candidate who wants to replace Barack Obama in the 2012 election cycle — it's Florida, stupid.
Candidates can spend all the time they want in Iowa. They can visit every household and sip a cup at every coffee shop, and it likely will get them what it got Mike Huckabee in Iowa four years ago, an unimportant victory.
The same goes for New Hampshire. That state is the size of a postage stamp in electoral politics. (It's also quite lovely, and I'd rather live there than in most states. But politics is politics.)
Then there's South Carolina. At least it's a more populous state than Iowa or New Hampshire. But South Carolina appears to be ready to abdicate its role as the heavily influential second primary in the election cycle. That's because Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, acting boldly and determinedly, has refused to put into the state budget the several million dollars necessary for the state to conduct a presidential primary.
South Carolina now may be running the risk of having to settle for a presidential caucus, that would be far less influential than a primary.
What looms over the horizon is Florida. It's a big primary in scale, and probably an even bigger one for importance.
Many years ago, pollsters viewed California as a microcosm of America. But decades later, Florida has become the litmus-test state. Had the Democratic National Committee in 2008 not punished the Sunshine State for moving up its primary to ahead of what the DNC considered an acceptable date, Obama likely wouldn't be president today. Hillary Clinton annihilated him in the Florida contest, but the DNC effectively invalidated the results.
But this time around, Florida appears willing to keep its more traditional primary date, despite legislation that would allow it to again leapfrog in front of other states and caucuses.
Why shouldn't it bump up its primary? After the candidates finish attending fairs and flipping pancakes in states previous to Florida, nothing will have been decided anyway. Moreover, Florida features significant patches of just about every major demographic in America. It also contains a whole lot of voters, and they likely will determine who will stay in the race following the Florida vote, and ultimately who will get the GOP nomination.
For proof of Florida's importance, take note of Obama's recent visit to Miami and Puerto Rico. No sitting president in the last 50 years has visited the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. But Obama is smart. He knows that Central Florida is home to a large number of Puerto Ricans who tend to vote Democratic.
It seems that since the fabled 2000 election, Florida has become one of the states that signals who will eventually win both party presidential nominations and the general election. Obama carried Florida in 2008 by a narrow margin over John McCain, but he could face a tough road there next year.
It was Charlie Crist, the then-popular Florida governor in 2008, who basically handed the Republican presidential nomination to McCain by endorsing him. But today's governor, Rick Scott, is less popular and so will have little to hand any candidate.
One reason for Scott's iffy popularity is that Florida voters — particularly those who likely will participate in what I expect to be a massive GOP primary turnout — are more mainstream than many pundits believe. They supported Scott for governor because he was a businessman and because he had the money to get out his conservative-populist message. But these same voters have been disappointed in Scott's inability to govern.
Scott was catapulted to leadership by the participation of Florida's famously powerful independent voters. They were reacting to Crist's move from right to center on the political spectrum and to Obama's tilt to the left.
Yes, these voters are still conservative in nature, but more important, they are pragmatic. And pragmatic in this election cycle means conservative but not right wing.
The Herman Cains and Michele Bachmanns of the GOP presidential field will have a strong but modestly sized core group of supporters. Likely they will be overwhelmed by the millions who will flock to the polls and choose the candidate they view as most electable.
If that vote were held today, Mitt Romney would emerge the victor, thanks mostly to his unmatched organization and extensive campaign-finance resources. But after my infamous newspaper column of 2007, in which I predicted that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in as the Democratic nominee, I'm out of the predicting business.
A lot can change in a year, but this much is certain: For all their visits to Iowa, New Hampshire and maybe South Carolina, the smartest Republican candidates will be practically making Florida their homes over the coming months. And if states like Georgia, Florida's neighbor and the ninth-most-populous state, have any brains, they will follow Florida's primary the following week with a primary of their own, making them kingmakers of their own.
Matt Towery is author of the book, "Paranoid Nation: The Real Story of the 2008 Fight for the Presidency." He heads the polling and political information firm InsiderAdvantage.
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