- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Florida, the site of last Monday’s GOP debate and host of another showdown next week, is squarely in the 2012 campaign spotlight for the next few days - and with good reason, according to first-term Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

The Sunshine State, Mr. Scott said in an interview Wednesday, is about to pick the country’s next president.

“I personally believe that whoever wins that straw poll is going to win the presidency.”

The governor, appearing on The Washington Times-affiliated “America’s Morning News” radio program, was referring to the Sept. 24 Florida straw poll that wraps up three days of Republican speeches, candidate appearances and political strategy sessions in Orlando.

The gathering, which the state GOP has dubbed “Presidency 5,” is expected to draw more than 3,000 party activists and includes the Fox News-sponsored presidential debate Sept. 22. The Conservative Political Action Conference is holding its Florida meeting in Orlando at the same time.

Mr. Scott said Florida Republicans and tea party activists, who backed his campaign for the governorship in 2010, are “engaged.”

“They know that Florida is the key to winning the president,” he said.

Mr. Scott’s assessment of the impact of the Florida straw poll could be interpreted as a slap at some of the GOP candidates, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who are participating in the debate but skipping the straw poll.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is also skipping the straw poll to focus on New Hampshire, where he was campaigning Tuesday.

New Hampshire’s primary “isn’t a hokey straw poll,” he said. “You have to earn [the votes].”

Mr. Romney, who participated in and won straw polls in 2008 but eventually lost the nomination to Sen. John McCain, has said he will not participate in any straw polls this time around.

But Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has surged ahead of Mr. Romney in recent polls, is “all in” on Florida, including the straw poll.

“Gov. Perry is fully committed to participating in P5,” campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan told the St. Petersburg Times. “The governor is committed to working hard for the vote in Florida.”

Gov. Scott has yet to endorse anyone in the GOP field, but in another interview Wednesday - this one on MSNBC - he said both Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry would win Florida in the general election in a head-to-head matchup with President Obama.

On “America’s Morning News,” he said a hard-fought battle among the GOP contenders would pay off for the party and voters.

“I really believe we ought to have a heated primary from the standpoint of what do you believe in, and how are you going to get our country back to work, make sure our seniors are taken care of, our military is taken care of. That’s the sort of thing we need to be hearing from these candidates,” he said.

Florida’s 2012 primary, usually scheduled after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina but before the Super Tuesday pack of primaries set next year for March 6, would shape up as a critical showdown for the GOP contest if the two front-runners come into the contest with two wins apiece.

Mr. Scott said Mr. Perry’s statements about Social Security as “Ponzi scheme” will not hurt his chances in Florida.

“I don’t think it’s a problem,” he said on MSNBC. “I think everybody realizes it’s an issue we have to deal with.”

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