But Florida’s diversity means much more than the opportunity to sample authentic frijoles negros, corned beef, and collard greens all in one road trip. The different constituencies create openings for different candidates. The state’s smaller proportion of conservatives and evangelicals could benefit Romney and Huntsman, both Mormons with moderate records on some social issues. Romney is also trying to mine votes in the large elderly population by exploiting Perry’s position on Social Security. On the other hand, Perry’s experience with Hispanic outreach in Texas (he got 38 percent of the vote in his 2010 reelection bid) could help him make inroads in Spanish-speaking parts of the state.
Florida’s unmatched diversity was evident in Bachmann’s four-day swing last month. Her stops included a sub shop in the Jacksonville area, a GOP stronghold where an African-American Democrat was recently elected mayor in an upset; a retirement community in Polk County, another Republican enclave; a gathering of Christian conservatives in Orlando; a mega-church near Tampa that has hosted former Gov. Jeb Bush and former President George W. Bush; a rally in Sarasota, a GOP-friendly-county-turned-battleground after Obama kept McCain’s margin of victory to only 211 votes; and two landmarks in the Cuban-American community in Miami.
The wide-ranging terrain forced Bachmann to tailor her stump speech to each audience in a way that Iowa and New Hampshire’s more homogeneous communities would be less likely to expect. At the Solivita retirement community, she addressed the group of about 300 people town-hall style. She sounded off about the budget deficit, federal spending, and entitlement programs before fielding questions from gray-haired residents in golf shorts and tennis visors. Bachmann only briefly mentioned her opposition to abortion rights.
“A lot of people here are not as religiously oriented, so she needs to play that down,” said Skip Stellfox, vice president of the community’s Republican club and a former New York management consultant. He supported Romney in 2008. “He’s got real-life business experience, as opposed to our president,” Stellfox added.
Just hours later, at the Florida Family Policy Council dinner in a hotel ballroom, Bachmann delivered a deeply personal speech laden with biblical references about her miscarriage and religious awakening. “I’m so glad that she shared her faith so vocally instead of giving us talking points,” said retiree Cathy Luney, who said she wasn’t interested in hearing another tirade against Obama.
Not only is Florida challenging the presidential candidates to appeal to wildly diverse audiences, it is forcing them to recognize the state’s priorities. In the revised playbook for aspiring nominees trying to navigate both Florida and Iowa, the chapter on the Everglades comes right after the one on ethanol—as Bachmann learned during her Florida trip when she was rebuked for saying she would consider drilling for oil and natural gas in the national park.
Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., a member of the congressional Tea Party Caucus that Bachmann founded, called her remarks on the Everglades “an incredible faux paus,” according to local newspapers. Former state Rep. Adam Hasner, a U.S. Senate candidate, told one media outlet, “There is no current plan to drill in the Everglades—and nor should there be.”
Bachmann’s gaffe recalled an incident during the 2008 campaign when Romney’s efforts to impress a heavily Cuban-American crowd backfired when he invoked a trademark slogan of Fidel Castro’s. The Cuban dictator has ended his speeches with the phrase Patria o muerte, venceremos—“Fatherland or death, we shall overcome”—for decades. Romney mistakenly identified the phrase with a “free Cuba.”
“Understanding that you are dealing with very different constituencies across Florida is one of the biggest challenges,” said Republican fundraiser Ana Navarro, who is advising the Huntsman campaign on Hispanic issues. “You have to know and understand your audience to stay on firm ground in Florida.”
Now, if only Florida had a firm primary date.
Mounting tension with the only four states blessed by the Republican National Committee to hold contests in February—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada—prompted Florida state lawmakers to charge a committee with making the awkward decision by Oct. 1. The state law shepherded by Rubio sets the date as the last Tuesday in January, which would wreak havoc with the RNC’s proposed calendar.
It feels a lot like 2007. Top Florida lawmakers insist they have no desire to leapfrog the traditional early-voting states. At the same time, they have no qualms about violating the intent of the RNC rules reserving the month of February for those four states. The national party is threatening, once again, to take away half of the delegates awarded by the Florida primary to the nominating convention.
For the party faithful who work the phones, canvass neighborhoods, and wave placards on street corners, attending the convention is like going to the Super Bowl. They don’t want to give up the parties, their seat on the convention floor, or the chance to proudly cast a vote for their party’s standard-bearer.
“It’s indicative of what’s going on in Washington, in that local representation is being ignored—and that’s wrong,” said Polk County Republican Chairman Jimmy Nelson. “Our delegates come from our precincts and our counties that are the foundation of our political system.”
But after Florida’s successful experiment with an early primary in the last election, state leaders are not deterred by the national GOP’s penalties. History shows that one candidate typically locks down enough delegates to emerge as the presumptive nominee fairly early in the primary season, precluding a fight on the balloon-festooned convention floor in the late summer or early fall.
“We could lose delegates, but most every person I talk to around the state, with very few exceptions, says they are gladly willing to give up delegates in order to vote early,” said Haridopolos, the state Senate president. “If we have a say in who the nominee is going to be, that’s much more consequential than just confirming that person at the convention.”
The site of the 2012 convention, by the way? Tampa. Florida officials are confident that the national party wouldn’t embarrass its hosts by booting Florida’s delegates from the floor.
Meanwhile, the states vying for the earliest and most influential primaries are playing a mean game of chicken. Being the first to pick a date gives other states the chance to jump out in front. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer announced earlier this week that her state will flout the RNC’s rules and vote on Feb. 28, a bold decision certain to prod Florida, and possibly Michigan and Georgia, to pick dates earlier in the month. The leapfrogging will continue as New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada are expected to nab even-earlier spots on the calendar. With Arizona laying down a February marker, New Year’s in Iowa is looking more likely.
Go right ahead. Get a running start. The Sunshine State will sit back and wait its turn, content with the knowledge that it will either effectively end the Republican presidential race—or prolong it. Either way, Florida can’t be ignored.
This article appears in the Sep. 17, 2011, edition of National Journal.