Florida lawmakers last year fought hard to make the Sunshine State the fourth contest on the GOP primary calendar, pushing it to the front of the schedule despite the scorn of the traditional early states and sanctions from the Republican Party.
Turns out, the move was worth the bruises. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s unexpected and decisive win in South Carolina on Saturday threw the race for the GOP presidential nomination into disarray, making the Florida primary a critical showdown among the winners of the first three contests—Iowa caucus victor Rick Santorum, New Hampshire primary winner Mitt Romney and Gingrich. An event that might have been irrelevant had Romney locked down South Carolina is likely to give one of the contenders his second win and possibly christen a new front-runner.
“This was our goal all along,” said Carlos Lopez-Cantera, the Republican majority leader of the Florida House, who was instrumental in expediting the state’s primary. “I was confident this would be the outcome, that Florida would be the deciding factor in this race.”
In September, Florida lawmakers scheduled their presidential primary for Jan. 31, after initially setting their sights on early March. The decision sent ripples through the rest of the calendar, forcing Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to shift their primaries up accordingly. The move broke Republican National Committee rules that prohibit states from moving up their primaries and cost Florida half of its delegates.
A week ago, the state’s act of defiance might have been all for naught. Romney, after being declared the victor in Iowa and steamrolling the rest of the GOP field in New Hampshire, seemed on course to win comfortably in South Carolina. Back-to-back-to-back victories could have effectively sewn up the nomination for the former Massachusetts governor, rendering the Florida primary meaningless. Romney was already hinting at skipping the state’s two debates.
Then, Romney hit a rough patch, suffering the worst week to date in his bid for the nomination. Gingrich blew away the competition at a candidates’ debate, bringing the audience to its feet. On the campaign trail, Romney uncomfortably dodged questions about when he would release his tax returns and his Iowa victory was snatched away when GOP officials there announced that a recount made Santorum the winner by 34 ballots. Then on Saturday, he got clobbered 40 percent to 28 percent in South Carolina, where he had once been favored to win.
Now, Florida's voters won’t want for attention from the four-person GOP field, which also still includes Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. The Jan. 31 primary gives the candidates more than a week to barnstorm the state and saturate its airwaves with ads. “When you look at the amount of attention Florida Republicans are going to receive from the presidential candidates and compare that to the attention they would have gotten with a March 4 primary, I think it’s an easy conclusion the move was worth it,” said Justin Sayfie, a GOP consultant in the state supporting Romney.
It will be the second consecutive GOP primary in which Florida plays a pivotal role. Four years ago, the state served as the clincher for eventual GOP nominee John McCain of Arizona, who defeated Romney 36 percent to 31 percent. Soon afterward, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who came in third with just 15 percent, quit the race and endorsed McCain, who cruised to the nomination.
“It was the end for Romney. It was the end for Giuliani,” said David Johnson, a former executive director of the state Republican Party. “It was the last competitive race of the GOP primary.”
Whether Florida determines the eventual winner this time around remains to be seen. Operatives on the ground there say Romney has the best organization and has already run the most television ads. But Gingrich clearly has the momentum after Saturday’s commanding, double-digit win. If the race is close, it’s unlikely anyone will emerge from the state as the party’s inevitable nominee.
“Last time, the state drove the narrative forward that that the race was over with,” Johnson said. “Whether that happens this time remains to be seen.”