In 2000, McCain carried New Hampshire after Texas Gov. George W. Bush won in Iowa. Bush overtook McCain in a brutal South Carolina contest, then crushed McCain in Florida and went on to win the presidency.
In the 2012 election's early and highly speculative stages, strategists see Iowa and South Carolina as potentially good fits for Perry, while Romney could do well in New Hampshire and Nevada.
Under that scenario, Florida "has the real chance to be the decider," Musser said. For now, he said, "it's very wide open."
Florida has large numbers of every type of Republican voter. They are spread hundreds of miles apart, in expensive media markets.
Unlike the other early-voting states, Florida's primary is open only to people who have been registered as Republicans for many weeks, barring independents from influencing the nomination.
"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," 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," 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," Weatherford said. Miami is the largest city in that county.
Some Republicans think Perry may have hurt himself among Florida's retirees with his sharp criticisms of Social Security. Others, however, note that 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, Rubio said last month.
Coker said Rubio might catch less heat for such remarks because Floridians see him as deliberate and intellectual. Perry, he said, "was like a bull in a china shop."
"If you want to talk Social Security in Florida," Coker said, "you must talk softly."
He said it's too early to handicap the Florida primary, but Romney has a head start organizationally because of his efforts in 2008.
Party insiders say former Gov. Jeb Bush, whose father and brother were presidents, remains highly popular among Florida Republicans. His family in Texas reportedly has chilly relations with Perry, fueling speculation that Jeb Bush might endorse Romney.
Weatherford doubts it will happen. "He wants people to earn it," he said.
Rubio, the 40-year-old senator with strong ties to Cuban-Americans, tea partyers and others, also could deliver a helpful endorsement, but party activists don't think he will.
Whoever wins the GOP nomination might strongly consider Rubio as a running mate. He could help carry a state that repeatedly proves crucial in presidential elections, and one the GOP desperately wants to wrest from Obama next year.
Florida GOP: www.rpof.org
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