Florida voters retain clout

It's not the delegates, it's how the state will set the table for Super Tuesday Feb. 5.

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published January 10, 2008

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- We've heard from Iowa and New Hampshire but the biggest voice in this crazy presidential campaign may be yours in 19 days.

If you're a Republican, you're poised to pick the nominee. If you're a Democrat, you could deliver a nice lift to Hillary Rodham Clinton -- or drive a nail in her coffin. If you're an independent, sit back and watch this extraordinary campaign as it steams into all-important Florida on Jan. 29.

New Hampshire made two things clear Tuesday night: The Republican race is a volatile muddle in which at least four candidates, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney remain viable; and neither Barack Obama nor Clinton are anywhere close to snatching the nomination.

There are countless scenarios as the Republicans move through Michigan Jan. 15 and South Carolina (Jan. 19) and the Democrats move to Nevada (Jan. 19) and South Carolina (Jan. 26). But no matter what, the biggest prize comes Feb. 5 when 22 states vote, and it's Florida that decides who has juice heading into that day.

"If you assume the Republican nomination is going to be decided Super Tuesday, Florida is of critical importance because it sets the table for Feb. 5. It's the showdown before Super Tuesday," Washington-based pollster Neil Newhouse said.

For Florida leaders who scheduled an early primary to give their state more influence in picking the nominee, the mixed results of Iowa and New Hampshire couldn't have worked out better, at least for Republicans.

"You're going to have no clear leader coming into Florida Jan. 29, and the nomination is going to be up for grabs by the time Florida votes," state GOP chairman Jim Greer said. "Florida voters are going to be the most prominent decisionmakers on who wins."

Florida Republicans lost half their delegates to the Republican national convention as punishment for scheduling the primary earlier than allowed, but the contenders have never lost sight of the importance of Jan. 29.

Giuliani, having more or less brushed off Iowa and New Hampshire, has been practically living in the Sunshine State. Still, some polls show him barely ahead or even trailing, while Huckabee, Romney and McCain remain very much in the hunt.

Far from meaningless

The Democratic picture is murkier because the Democratic National Committee stripped Florida Democrats of all delegates to the nominating convention, and the candidates are boycotting the primary in deference to the official schedule.

While some Democratic strategists in Florida had predicted that boycott wouldn't hold after Iowa and New Hampshire, there's no sign Obama or Clinton will suddenly launch Florida campaigns. In a neck-and-neck race to win enough delegates, why snub the national party and spend millions of dollars on a state with no delegates at stake?

Officially, Florida's Democratic primary is a meaningless beauty contest. Don't think for a second, though, that it will be irrelevant or ignored.

"Heading into Feb. 5, the fact that at the moment there are no delegates is going to mean a lot less to folks outside of Florida than who won and who lost Florida," said Bernie Campbell a Democratic consultant in Tampa. "Howard Dean tried to make Florida the back porch. But if Super Tuesday is the ballroom, we're now the lobby -- the place you enter to get to the ballroom."

The question is how much the 20- to 30-point lead Clinton has enjoyed in Florida polls most of the year shrinks, and, given the expectations for a big Clinton win, whether she can get much of a bump. An InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion poll released before the New Hampshire results Tuesday showed her lead over Obama among likely Democratic voters already had shrunk dramatically -- to eight percentage points -- 40 to 32.

Her New Hampshire upset at least helped avert disaster: Obama gaining so much momentum that he could roll through Nevada and South Carolina and win Florida without even campaigning in the state.

Tampa-based Democratic consultant Ana Cruz, who has been organizing Democrats for Clinton, says Florida stands to catapult Clinton into the Feb. 5 contests. Florida is the first mega state to weigh in on the Democratic nomination, after all, and it's the first primary where only Democrats can vote. Obama benefits when unaffiliated voters are eligible.

"Six months ago, people were upset and angry and saying our votes won't count," she said. "Boy the tables have turned. ... The biggest swing state in the country is going to give the Clinton campaign momentum to continue on with the marathon."

Of course, not everybody will make it to Jan. 29.

It was reported Wednesday that Democrat Bill Richardson was dropping out, and John Edwards appeared unlikely to make it past South Carolina. Republican Fred Thompson will likely have to pull the plug if he fails to make a showing in that state.

Romney down, not out

Romney bet heavily on winning Iowa and New Hampshire, and failed. But ignore the people already writing his obituary; it's ridiculous and positively undemocratic to suggest he should drop out after two second-place showings when he has money and organization to continue.

Still, Michigan, where his father was governor, may be Romney's Waterloo. If he loses there, don't bet on seeing him around Florida in late January.

McCain's stunning comeback is one for the history books, but don't crown him the frontrunner. We'll have to see how he does in a primary limited to just Republicans. Florida, for instance.

Huckabee, the former Baptist preacher who is leading in South Carolina's key primary, may not have a typical profile for winning Florida, but could he?

"In a two-way race, no. But with a divided field with a competitive three- or four-person race, he can win Florida," said Newhouse, the Republican pollster.

All of this uncertainty makes Giuliani another big winner. With no frontrunner, his strategy of concentrating on Florida and the Feb. 5 states could work out.

There's a reason Giuliani was smiling Wednesday, after edging out Ron Paul for fourth place in New Hampshire's primary: While his rivals spread out in Michigan and South Carolina, Giuliani woke up in Florida and had the biggest battleground to himself.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.