The Republican presidential candidates are about to get plenty of sunshine: Two debates and a big Republican gathering will make the GOP White House hopefuls frequent visitors to Florida over the next two weeks, a harbinger of an aggressive race to win the state’s pivotal primary. The key events of the next fortnight will be taking place along the I-4 corridor, a key stretch of territory that often decides races in Florida.
The candidates gathered Monday night for a debate in Tampa, on western end of the interstate that gives the corridor its name, before heading to a debate next week in Orlando.
That the field is spending so much time in central Florida is no accident. The I-4 corridor is among this battleground state’s most swing regions. A conservative stronghold in 1988, it shifted far enough to the left in 1996 that is supported President Clinton. By 2000, it split its vote between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. Bush increased his margin there in 2004, winning 54 percent the vote in the region.
Florida’s importance to the presidential election hardly needs explaining: It is the most famous of all presidential battlegrounds after a contentious, protracted recount there decided the fate of the 2000 campaign. Bush won the state again in 2004, but Barack Obama captured it with relative ease four years later. As the president’s approval ratings dip, the Sunshine State will re-emerge as a pivotal battleground in 2012.
Dividing Florida’s more conservative north from its Democratic-leaning south, the I-4 corridor has become a pivotal region in both general and primary elections. Republican voter registration growth there leads the state, making central Florida a magnet for GOP presidential hopefuls.