Florida positioned as 2012 kingmaker

For the second cycle in a row, Florida has positioned itself as the kingmaker of the GOP presidential race.

Four years after giving Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLawmakers worry about rise of fake video technology Democrats put Dreamers and their party in danger by playing hardball Trump set a good defense budget, but here is how to make it better MORE’s (R-Ariz.) campaign a huge boost and ending the campaign of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Florida’s GOP has again moved up the date of its primary to late January to try to give state voters an outsize role in nominating the GOP candidate for president. 

“It has definitely become the premier ballot for presidential candidates, the must-win state,” said Albert Martinez, a longtime Florida Republican strategist and close adviser to Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioColbert: Students taking action on gun violence 'give me hope' Lawmakers feel pressure on guns Florida lawmaker's aide fired after claiming shooting survivors were 'actors' MORE (R-Fla.). “The last cycle, we decided the nominee, and I think we will do that this time.”

South Carolina on Monday moved its primary to Jan. 21 because of Florida’s decision to schedule its primary on Jan. 31, and Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada are sure to follow. 

If the candidates divide up those four states, as seems possible, Florida could play a determining factor again next year, GOP strategists and analysts said. 

“Florida is going to ultimately weed out one or two top-tier candidates,” said Florida Republican lobbyist Justin Sayfie, the publisher of the Sayfie Review, which closely follows the state’s politics.

The calendar seems likely to place Florida’s primary 10 days after South Carolina’s, and a full month before subsequent contests in Michigan and Arizona, on Feb. 28. This will only increase the primary’s standing, Sayfie said. 

“I think [the lack of primaries] the month afterwards increases its importance — it doesn’t give the candidates that lose Florida a quick rebound opportunity,” he said. “The best thing you’d hope for if you lose Florida would be an opportunity very soon afterwards to change the narrative, and not having that opportunity makes the value of a Florida victory even greater.”

It’s likely that some states will move their primaries into February, said Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and 2008 Romney backer who now heads the American Conservative Union. But if they don’t, he said, “that gives campaigns more liberty to go hard in Florida and know if they do well they can refill their campaign coffers.”

The Republican National Convention will be in Tampa next August, and the swing state will likely be a key battleground in the general election, giving candidates all the more reason to compete for votes there.

Florida will be punished for moving its primary date. 

The GOP will strip the state party of half its delegates at the Republican National Convention for breaking the rules and moving its primary, something that also happened in 2008. 

This means Florida will have a smaller voice in choosing the GOP nominee in the unlikely event that a national fight drags on to the convention. 

Florida is also an expensive state to campaign in because of its eight major media markets and huge, diverse population. There were 1.7 million votes cast in the 2008 Republican primary, compared to fewer than 450,000 in South Carolina,.

Experts in the state say that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are in the strongest position in Florida because of the deep-pocketed nature of their campaigns. Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain’s win at a recent straw poll has raised his profile, and experts suggest he could be competitive with some more resources.

“It’s a different type of campaign, because with such a large number of voters the battle gets fought on the airwaves,” said Sayfie. “Florida is going to be a resource-intensive place to campaign, so the candidate who still has resources to spend here is going to have an advantage for sure.”

This gives the edge to candidates like Romney and Perry, who are already on the ground in Florida running large, expensive campaigns, and hurts dark-horse candidates who hope a win in an early state like Iowa or New Hampshire can propel them to the nomination.

This had led some second-tier candidates to grumble privately about the new schedule — and one to publicly lambaste Florida’s move.

“These early states have the deserved reputation of testing candidates and ensuring the emergence of the strongest Republican presidential nominee,” former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said in a release shortly before Florida officially moved its primary.

“The Republican parties in the early states can count on my support to help maintain their vital role in the process. And I ask the other Republican candidates to have the courage to join me in supporting the early states.”

Santorum’s unhappiness should be no surprise — he is among the candidates without deep pockets.

“I don’t think you can just win one other state and expect to be able to then come in and compete in Florida,” said Martinez. “It definitely benefits those people who have already spent time and effort organizing here.”