WASHINGTON — Take a breather, Iowa and New Hampshire.
Florida is about to get into the Republican presidential race big time, starting with a televised debate Monday in Tampa and ending with an early primary in 2012 that conceivably could wrap up the nomination.
It's quite plausible that front-runners Rick Perry and Mitt Romney could roughly divide the first four contests, in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. If that happens, Florida could prove the virtual tie-breaker, a prize so big in a state so central to presidential elections that the loser might struggle to stay afloat.
"My guess is that Florida is going to be the big kahuna," said Brad Coker, a Florida-based pollster for Mason-Dixon who conducts surveys nationwide. Florida is much larger, diverse and expensive than the other four early-voting states, he said, and so it rewards the type of campaigning a Republican must do around the country to oust President Barack Obama in November 2012.
Of course, events over the next few months could upend that scenario. Perry, the Texas governor, or Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, might stumble. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann could revive her struggling campaign. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman might catch fire. A new candidate, such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, might jump in.
Then there's the scheduling of those caucuses and primaries, which isn't set.
For now, campaign strategists assume Florida will be the fifth contest, as early as Jan. 31, and the first in a big state.
Florida Republicans don't follow presidential politics as intensely as do GOP activists in Iowa and New Hampshire. Nor do they expect one-on-one encounters with candidates.
When the nominating process rolls into Florida, "the days of the house parties are behind you," said Phil Musser, a former director of the Republican Governors Association and a frequent consultant in the state.
In the next two weeks, Florida Republicans will get ample attention, beginning with Monday night's two-hour debate sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express.
The forum will include the eight contenders who debated last week in California, where Perry made his national debut. Romney is almost certain to renew his criticisms of Perry for calling Social Security's funding structure "a Ponzi scheme."
The candidates also will have their first collective chance to dissect the jobs proposal that Obama outlined Thursday.
The Orlando debate starts off the three-day "Presidency 5" event where thousands of Florida Republicans will mingle, hear speeches and vote in a presidential straw poll.
Will Weatherford, incoming speaker of the Florida House, said many party donors and activists are on the sidelines for now, but the big weekend will give them a good long look at the contenders. "A lot of people will choose sides after that," he said.
In the last two competitive GOP primaries, Florida joined South Carolina to form a one-two Southern punch that essentially resolved disagreements in Iowa and New Hampshire.
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 Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
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 Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who took 3 percent of the 2008 primary vote. Paul is running for president again.
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