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Florida looms large in GOP nomination race
Tie-breaker role seen for ‘big kahuna’ after four other early-voting states
In 2008, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won in Iowa, but quickly faltered. Arizona Sen. John McCain captured the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, and then eliminated all doubt in Florida by beating Mr. Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudolph. W. Giuliani.
Mr. Giuliani was embarrassed after pouring nearly all his money and hopes into Florida. The lesson, campaign strategists say, is that a candidate must build momentum in Iowa or New Hampshire to gain credibility in Florida.
Florida was even crueler to Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who took 3 percent of the 2008 primary vote. Mr. Paul is running for president again.
In 2000, Mr. McCain carried New Hampshire after Texas Gov. George W. Bush won in Iowa. Mr. Bush overtook Mr. McCain in a brutal South Carolina contest, then crushed Mr. McCain in Florida and went on to win the presidency.
“There’s no question that the Republican base in Florida is very conservative,” said Todd Harris, a veteran strategist aligned with the state’s GOP senator, Marco Rubio. “But they are not nearly as uniform in ideology as the base in South Carolina or Iowa caucus-goers.”
“Perry will feel at home, culturally and politically, in the Panhandle,” Mr. Harris said. “Romney will probably do better in the critical Interstate 4 corridor,” which is perhaps the state’s most diverse and up-for-grabs region. It runs from Daytona Beach through Orlando and to Tampa.
Many other GOP constituencies also must be catered to. They include Cuban-Americans in Miami, Midwestern retirees on the Gulf Coast, and New York retirees on the south Atlantic coast.
“We have the social, economic and racial diversity that some of the other early primary states don’t have,” Mr. Weatherford said. It forces candidates to spend more, travel more and stretch themselves in new ways, he said.
“You can’t use the same speech in Dade County that you use in the Panhandle,” Mr. Weatherford said. Miami is the largest city in Dade County.
Some Republicans think Mr. Perry may have hurt himself among Florida’s retirees with his sharp criticisms of Social Security. Others, however, note that Mr. Rubio has included Social Security among programs that were “crafted without any thought as to how they will be funded in future years.”
“Because it weakened our people and didn’t take [into] account the simple math of not being able to spend more money than you have, it was destined to fail” and must be revised, Mr. Rubio said last month.
“If you want to talk Social Security in Florida,” Mr. Coker said, “you must talk softly.”
By Brahma Chellaney
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