When Florida will vote in the 2012 GOP presidential primary remains anyone’s guess, but the state is already having a dramatic and early impact in determining who will challenge President Barack Obama.
For most of the next four weeks Florida will have a unprecedented starring role in the run-up to the primary, hosting two national debates within 10 days and attracting all of the candidates to a pair of influential conferences in Orlando.
That has the major Republican candidates setting a course for the Sunshine State this month and promising to campaign in Florida in a manner usually reserved for Iowa or New Hampshire – the more traditional early voting states.
The attention makes sense to national political experts.
“Florida is the single most important state in the GOP, not just in the general election but also for the primary,” said Ford O’Connell, a former presidential campaign advisor and Republican political consultant.
What Florida’s Republican primary has that many states can’t replicate is its voter mix. Florida’s hodgepodge of establishment Republicans, Tea Party conservatives and Republican-leaning independents, combined with a large Hispanic population and enormous number of older voters make it a national testing ground, O’Connell said.
“The Florida voter is the battleground,” O’Connell said.
It’s why Republicans decided to hold the Republican National Convention in Tampa in 2012. O’Connell said Republicans know the route to the White House goes through Florida.
But in Florida – which could vote as early as January – no one is viewed as having a clear advantage, O’Connell said.