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Politics

Florida GOP sees big role in 2008

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published November 30, 2006


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MIAMI - Tired of playing second fiddle to the likes of Iowa and New Hampshire in picking presidential nominees, Florida Republicans are positioning the Sunshine state to play a potentially huge role in the 2008 presidential race.

Not only are state legislative leaders working on moving Florida's primary to be one of the earliest in the country, but the state GOP is planning a straw vote convention for October 2007.

If the plan moves forward, next year the state would be crawling with Republican presidential contenders wooing 3,500 party activists in hopes of getting a big, early shot of momentum from America's biggest battleground state.

The state GOP already has blocked hundreds of rooms in Orlando for the non-binding "Presidency IV" gathering Oct. 17-20, hired a consultant to organize it and briefed potential presidential candidates about an event that could cost the campaigns hundreds of thousands of dollars to organize for a strong showing.

"I'd certainly be comfortable with it," Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, one of several potential Republican contenders for president, said Wednesday of the prospective early Florida popularity contest. "Florida's a great state. It would be a great bellwether state, representative in many ways of a lot of different cultures and views from around the country."

The nation watched as Florida Republicans held straw polls before the competitive 1980, 1988 and 1996 presidential primaries and Democrats held one in before the 1992 race. In each unpredictable contest, delegates picked the country's eventual nominee - Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bob Dole, and Bill Clinton, who credited the Florida contest with playing a crucial role in his winning the nomination.

Expectations at stake

The results are officially meaningless, but they play a big role in the crucial expectations game - who does surprisingly well or unexpectedly poorly - and campaigns work feverishly to win over delegates.

But frontrunners don't necessarily relish such events because they have the most to lose.

So Republicans are closely watching how Governor-elect Charlie Crist handles the "Presidency IV" idea. While Crist has not endorsed anyone, he is widely seen as an ally of Sen. John McCain, the presumed GOP frontrunner for 2008 and the only presidential prospect who endorsed Crist during his gubernatorial primary.

Crist did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday, and a spokeswoman said only that at this point, he's not focused on presidential politics.

Bipartisan support

Florida Democrats aren't talking about a straw vote for the Democratic primary, but the GOP event would be even more influential than past straw polls if the Florida primary moves from March to January or February.

That move has bipartisan support in Tallahassee, though the national parties bar most states from holding primaries before the first week of February. Florida could lose some delegates at their national convention if they buck the national parties, but the state still could be the first huge primary prize on the calendar - delivering more delegates than Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina combined.

Republican state House Speaker Marco Rubio has spearheaded the push for an early primary, and a spokeswoman for Senate President Ken Pruitt said he's on board too.

"Sen. Pruitt understands this is a priority of Speaker Rubio," spokeswoman Kathy Mears said of an early primary. "He is very receptive to the idea and wants to be of assistance, and he believes this would be a good change for Florida."

As for the "Presidency IV" straw poll a state GOP spokesman Jeff Sadosky said no decision has been made but the party has been working to lay the groundwork.

Critics say non-binding straw polls eat up vast energy and resources for what amounts to little more than a pointless popularity contest. But supporters say they energize party faithful and help raise big money. In 1996, candidates ponied up $100,000 to the state GOP for the privilege of participating in "Presidency III."

Republican consultant Sally Bradshaw of Tallahassee, who has worked on prior straw polls in Florida and is working with the political action committee of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, said such events can help parties recruit grass roots volunteers and help parties start organizing early.

Tallahassee Bureau Chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.

[Last modified November 30, 2006, 00:38:49]


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