The Republican National Committee is expected to sanction Florida for holding its primary on January 29, 2008, but that is not likely to prevent the state from holding the make-or-break contest of the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
The rules are clear, a spokeswoman for the committee, Tracey Schmitt, said. Florida will lose half of its 114 delegates to the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-Saint Paul next September because it jumped ahead of the February 5 firewall the national party sought to maintain on behalf of the traditional early states. But the chairman of the Florida Republican Party, Jim Greer, appears defiant, saying that even in the "unlikely event" his state is penalized at the convention, 57 delegates "is more delegates than most states."
More important than delegates, however, is the momentum Florida will provide to the Republican candidate who emerges victorious.
While in past years political pundits have seen Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina as the crucial tests of a national candidacy, this year's quirky primary schedule — featuring a February 5 "Super Duper Tuesday," on which Americans in upward of 20 states are expected to cast votes — has turned that old wisdom on its head. Theoretically, a candidate could have a mixed result in the traditional, small early states but then use Florida as a springboard into the February 5 primary, which includes other big states, such as New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and California.
The candidate seen as most aggressively pursuing such a strategy is Mayor Giuliani. Earlier this week, the Washington Post obtained an internal campaign PowerPoint presentation calling Florida the Giuliani camp's "firewall." The former New York mayor's campaign appears touchy about the Florida strategy, insisting that it is still competing aggressively in all three early states. A campaign strategist, Anthony Carbonetti, told the press: "Florida's the firewall, New Jersey's the firewall, Connecticut's the firewall, New York's the firewall" and added that the document was put together by state staff, not national staff. But Florida remains Mr. Giuliani's best shot at an early victory.
As the polls currently stand — albeit months before any votes will be counted — a former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, looks likely to win Iowa. He won the Iowa Straw Poll earlier this month and has built a considerable lead in the Hawkeye State.
New Hampshire and South Carolina both appear to be toss-ups. Mr. Romney is battling with Mr. Giuliani in the Granite State; the as-yet-undeclared Fred Thompson is battling with Mr. Giuliani in the Palmetto State. But in Florida, Mr. Giuliani has maintained a convincing lead, usually measuring in the double digits — sometimes roughly double his nearest opponent.
The possible reasons for his lead there are manifold. First is the number of Floridians who are former New Yorkers: The 2000 census recorded roughly 1.5 million Floridians born in New York, or roughly 9% of the state's population.
These migrants and other Northeasterners who have settled in the state, many of them along the I–95 corridor on the state's eastern coast, make up a natural base of support for the former mayor. And affection from Florida's Cuban and Jewish communities and his generally high ratings from conservatives nationwide also make Mr. Giuliani the one to beat.
The question, then, is who can dethrone Mr. Giuliani in Florida? After all, Mr. Giuliani's firewall could become another candidate's stumbling block.
After Mr. Giuliani, Florida is most crucial for Mr. Thompson. The former Tennessee senator's best chance at an early win is South Carolina. But even if he gets that win, he will need to prove quickly that he's not just the "Southern" candidate by winning in more cosmopolitan Florida.
While no official Thompson campaign yet exists, the former "Law and Order" actor's backers say he can be competitive in the state's panhandle, where Rep. Jeff Miller, of Florida's 1st District, has already endorsed Mr. Thompson; in Jacksonville, which is not too far south of Savannah, Ga., and along the state's I–4 corridor, which cuts diagonally across the state's middle.
Mr. Thompson's nascent campaign, however, may be running into some serious turmoil in Florida — as it has nationwide. Mr. Thompson has hired as his national political director an old Florida (and Governor Jeb Bush) political hand, Randy Enwright. But indications are that the Florida political establishment has grown jittery on account of Mr. Thompson's repeated delay in announcing that he's officially in the presidential campaign.
Yesterday, Mr. Thompson canceled a fund-raiser in Orlando at the last minute, citing a scheduling conflict.
Senator McCain of Arizona has no staff in Florida currently; his campaign said: "We're still aggressively campaigning in Florida."
Mr. Romney, of course, would be the other candidate who could pick up more traditional conservative support. His campaign is certainly playing hard to do so.
The governor just made his 14th trip to the state, a Romney spokeswoman, Gail Gitcho, told The New York Sun by e-mail, and he has 11 full-time staffers working there, not counting consultants. "As you probably know, he does not have the same universal name ID as the others in the race, so he is still introducing himself in the state," Ms. Gitcho said. "But with the strong organization and the growing interest from voters, we will be prepared for any primary scenario."
The question, however, is whether staffing can turn the tide in Florida. As one Florida political operative, not currently aligned with any of the campaigns put it, "Because Florida is so huge, unless you staff the hell out of it. It's a media war." That press war is going to be fought in the national press, in TV and radio advertising, and in the battle of celebrities.
"Every election has its own individual dynamic," a veteran Florida political hand, Jamie Miller, told the Sun. "This seems to be the dynamic of famous personalities." Thus a national celebrity, Mr. Giuliani, is duking it out with a television celebrity, Mr. Thompson. Mr. Romney may have to become a celebrity to make it out of the single and low-double digits in Florida.
It's the same puzzle Mr. Romney is struggling with nationally; it's the same advantage Mr. Giuliani enjoys nationally. It all points back to why Florida is so important. As Mr. Miller put it: "Florida is the largest swing state, and it's diverse enough to represent what candidates see throughout the United States."