“Florida will more than likely settle the nomination, particularly if you have more than one candidate winning the earlier primaries,’’ said Republican strategist Sally Bradshaw, who ran Romney’s 2008 campaign in Florida and was working with Haley Barbour until he ruled out a 2012 bid. “None of the other states have the ability to establish a front-runner the way Florida does.’’
The GOP candidates aren’t taking any chances. They’re spreading themselves thinner than in the past to make early inroads in Florida. Among the signs of Florida’s ascendance to the top tier of early primary states: Huntsman’s decision—the first by a Republican presidential candidate—to headquarter his campaign in the state; the scheduling of nationally televised debates in both Tampa and Orlando this month leading up to the state party’s straw poll; Perry’s hiring of a Florida consulting firm immediately after launching his campaign and another three staffers when he confirmed he would participate in the straw poll last week; and Michele Bachmann’s four day, seven-city tour of Florida late last month.
Still more evidence of Florida’s newfound clout: Romney’s seizing on Perry’s impolitic characterization of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme”—an issue with particular resonance in retiree-friendly Florida. Romney’s campaign is distributing fliers in the state that demand, “How can we trust anyone who wants to kill Social Security?”
MORE THAN A CASH COW
Before 2008, when Florida held its primary in March (by which time the nomination was a foregone conclusion), presidential candidates typically swept through for closed-door fundraisers and didn’t much bother with public appearances. Now, candidates usually pair check-gathering with retail politicking.
“We expect that when they come down here,” said Palm Beach County Republican Chairman Sid Dinerstein, who noted Huntsman’s meeting with Jewish voters in West Palm Beach on Sept. 9. “They’re a lot more ecumenical about being gracious to both check writers and voters.”
Still, the courtship of Florida has its limits, despite the state’s importance in the primary. Most candidates can’t afford it; others are conserving their resources until closer to the election. An aggressive presidential primary campaign in Florida costs $10 million to $12 million. Statewide television ads, at more than $1.5 million a week, account for a big chunk of that. In Iowa, that much money can send 25 pieces of mail to every likely caucus-goer or a buy a heavy statewide run on broadcast and cable television for six weeks. “Money goes a lot further in any of the earlier states than it does in Florida,” said Gentry Collins, a former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party and political director of the Republican National Committee. “Iowa and New Hampshire determine the playing field, so forgoing those states is really not an option.”
In fact, the 2012 candidates appear to be investing little in next week’s Florida’s straw poll, the state party’s mock election known as Presidency V. The field’s frugality is a far cry from the nearly $2 million that Bob Dole, the last winner of the straw poll, poured into courting delegates in 1995. He went on to win the nomination, as did the two previous winners of Florida’s straw poll—Ronald Reagan in 1979 and George H.W. Bush in 1987.
Jon Huntsman put his national headquarters in Orlando, but he ended up shifting some of the staff to New Hampshire.
Despite the straw poll’s perfect track record, two of the major candidates in this election cycle—Romney and Bachmann—have gone so far as to declare that they will not contest the balloting. Huntsman is officially participating, but he announced last week that he was moving some Florida staffers to New Hampshire, “a move reflective of the diminished importance of Florida’s ‘P5’ and the campaign’s focus on success in New Hampshire,” according to a press release from the campaign.
What’s going on here? These candidates are playing it cool for a few reasons. Romney decided months ago not to repeat the mistakes of his 2008 campaign, when he invested early in Iowa and Florida only to come in second in both contests. His decision to bypass the Iowa straw poll in August and the Florida poll in September also deprives rivals of two chances to score bragging rights off the onetime front-runner.
Bachmann, who ran a no-holds-barred campaign to win the Iowa straw poll last month, lacked enough time and money to organize in Florida. Huntsman, whose poll numbers are stuck in the weeds, doesn’t have a chance in Florida unless he can build a beachhead in New Hampshire; disparaging the straw poll’s significance is his thinly veiled attempt to lower expectations in the state where he based his campaign.
“The Huntsman team has redefined irony,” snorted state party spokesman Brian Hughes in a written statement. “On the day a campaign that polls near last place calls Presidency 5 ‘diminished,’ the campaign polling in first place [Perry] announces it will vigorously compete to win P5. Florida Republicans will help the ultimate nominee win this state and the White House. Why any campaign would choose to disparage the 3,500 people who represent the core of our state party’s base defies reason.”