For the next two weeks, Florida is going to be Mitt Romney country.
And Ron Paul country. And Michele Bachmann country. And Jon Huntsman country.
You get the idea. The eight major Republican contenders for president are going to be roving the state, starting with Monday night’s debate in Tampa sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express. Next week, the field moves to Orlando for a Republican Party of Florida debate on Sept. 22 to be broadcast on Fox News. The candidates will also appear at a Friday forum sponsored by the American Conservative Union before the state party’s straw poll on Saturday. The straw poll, the second such sampling of GOP voter preferences after last month’s mock election in Iowa, is expected to draw 3,500 Republican activists from around the state.
Many of the candidates are planning campaign events around the cattle calls. The current front-runner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for example, has booked about half a dozen fundraisers this month in Florida, which has long hosted one of the richest pools of campaign donors in the country.
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The focus on Florida comes as state Republican leaders are trying to lock down one of the early primary dates in the country, right behind Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. The goal is to make nation’s largest swing state as pivotal in choosing the nominee as it is in deciding the occupant of the White House.
Meanwhile, Social Security is expected to be a hot topic for the Republican field in Florida, where one out of six residents receives the federal retirement benefits. Social Security emerged as a central issue in last week’s Republican primary debate, when Perry refused to back down from his characterization of the trust fund as a “Ponzi scheme.’’ Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, immediately seized on the rhetoric to try to kneecap his leading rival. The campaign is distributing a flier in Florida that asks, “How can we trust anyone who wants to kill Social Security?’’
Romney’s attack is also being taken up by Democrats in Florida, who have a history of using Social Security as a wedge issue. Back in 1994, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles won reelection after targeting senior citizens with phone calls accusing Republican Jeb Bush of opposing Social Security.
While the issue could be a liability for Perry in the general election, it’s unclear how rank-and-file Republicans will respond. Palm Beach County Chairman Sid Dinerstein disputed the assumption that there would be a backlash against Perry in the retiree-friendly state.
“Perry is correct. Social Security is a Ponzi scheme,’’ Dinerstein said. “Finally someone is treating us like adults.’’
In a column in USA Today on Monday, Perry defended his position on Social Security, noting that by 2037, retirees will get only 76 cents back on the dollar unless the system is reformed. “Imagine how long a traditional retirement or investment plan could survive if it projected investors would lose 24% of their money? I am going to be honest with the American people," Perry wrote. "Our elected leaders must have the strength to speak frankly about entitlement reform if we are to right our nation’s financial course.’’
President Obama’s victory in Florida in 2008 was considered momentous in a state that backed the Democratic nominee only twice since 1976 (Jimmy Carter that year and Bill Clinton in 1996), and where the Republican Party has a firm lock on state government. But with unemployment and foreclosure rates in Florida topping the national average, polls show substantially eroded support for Obama. A Sachs/Mason-Dixon poll released late last month found 56 percent of Floridians disapprove of his job performance, compared to only 41 percent who approve.
Particularly troubling for Obama was the finding that 56 percent of the state’s independents – the group that typically settles statewide elections – disapproved of Obama’s performance. The poll also found Obama trailing Romney and tied with Perry.
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who is facing reelection in 2012, recently said Obama made “mistakes’’ and wouldn’t comment on whether they would campaign together.
“The president is in negative territory,’’ said Republican fundraiser Justin Sayfie, who was co-chairing Tim Pawlenty’s campaign in Florida until the former Minnesota governor bowed out of the race last month. “He needs to fix those numbers, and instead there are going to be a number of Republicans in the state talking about the change that’s needed in the White House.… I wouldn’t be surprised to see him or Vice President Joe Biden down here pretty soon, though they won’t call it a rebuttal.’’
The Democratic National Committee touted Obama's new jobs plan in an ad that began airing on Monday in Tampa and Orlando – the sites of the two GOP debates – as well as in a number of other cities.
“We feel the president is doing very well in Florida, particularly with what the Republican field is trying to sell on Social Security, and it’s scary,’’ said Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. “We welcome the Republican field coming to Florida so residents can really see what these candidates are all about.’’
This article appears in the September 12, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.