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Once again, Florida becomes a benchmark

By
January 31, 2008

Florida is the last sizable state to vote for presidential candidates in advance of “Super Tuesday” on Feb. 5, which will involve more than 20 states. While the Sunshine State holds both Democratic and Republican primaries, this year the latter is far more significant. John McCain’s narrow victory, giving him 57 Republican delegates from the state, reinforces his already strong comeback campaign.

Democratic Party national leaders decided to penalize Florida for moving ahead of the Feb. 5 date, and no delegates elected in the state primary are to be seated at the August national convention in Denver. Because of this, Democratic presidential aspirants pledged to avoid campaigning there.

Hillary Rodham Clinton then aggressively sought Florida Democratic votes following rival Barack Obama’s victory in the Jan. 26 South Carolina primary, which he won by a margin of 28 percent. Clinton has won the uncontested primary, but at this point no delegates, though that proviso will likely be changed once the party’s presidential nominee has been selected.

The national Republican Party has been more restrained regarding Florida, declaring that half the party delegates selected would be recognized at the convention in Minneapolis-St.Paul. Leading Republican candidates all gave high priority to the state.

Sen. John McCain’s campaign closed down Florida operations last fall in the midst of financial and organizational problems. The New Hampshire primary victory early this month showed his campaign had regained strength, and success in the Jan. 19 South Carolina Republican primary provided additional momentum.

On Jan. 20, six new McCain campaign centers were opened in Florida and barnstorming bus trips, a trademark of the candidate, were launched. Approximately 40 percent of Republican voters in the state are affiliated with the military. This population has generally been strongly for McCain, a retired Navy combat pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam. At the same time, the Florida primary is restricted to already declared partisans; in other states, he gained crucial support from crossover independents and Democrats.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was in Florida virtually nonstop for more than a week in advance of the Tuesday voting. The campaign inundated the state with commercials, including the Spanish-language media, highlighting contrasts with the ethnic characteristics of earlier primary and caucus states.

About a fourth of Florida Republican voters are estimated to be evangelical Christians, who have been supportive of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The decision by former Sen. Fred Thompson to withdraw from the race also should have helped Huckabee.

Rudolph Giuliani lost the most in Florida. The former mayor of New York, hero of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, took a pass on earlier contests. An early lead in the polls steadily dwindled. In Tuesday’s voting, he finished a distant third behind McCain and Romney.

Florida remains distinctive. Once the smallest in population in the region, the state is now fourth-largest in the nation and has provided important support to Democrats even as the region has moved to the Republican Party. Bill Clinton narrowly lost Florida in 1992 but won in 1996 after aggressive courtship of the Cuban emigre population, which usually votes Republican. Florida played a pivotal role in the very close 2000 presidential election, when the U.S. Supreme Court intervened in contested vote counting.

Florida and South Carolina together have had great influence on the 2008 presidential race. Thanks to victory in both, McCain is now the Republican front-runner. Obama’s South Carolina win has generated considerable momentum; Super Tuesday will indicate whether or not Clinton’s last-minute Florida emphasis was wise.

(Arthur I. Cyr is a professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” He can be reached at acyr(at)carthage.edu. For more stories, visit scrippsnews.com.)