TAMPA — Iowa and New Hampshire are politically big because they’re early. Florida is politically big because it’s — well — big. Ten media markets, two time zones, and 18 million residents big, with every kind of voter you can describe. Florida is more of a region than a state. There will be nearly as many absentee ballots cast in Florida as total votes cast in the Iowa Caucuses.
Florida is also pretty early this year. So early as to be January 29. It’s the biggest and most diverse state to vote before Super Tuesday on Feb. 5. A major prize in a Republican primary cycle with no clear front-runner after three contests. So even on the half-rations the national Republican Party put the state on, Florida has a chance to be more important than the sate legislators who moved the primary from March to January imagined.
As one of the states that engaged in that unseemly primary line-cutting last year that threatened to push the first primary to choose candidates for November of 2008 to before Christmas of 2007, Florida got up the noses of the apparatchiks in the national parties. It had to be — as the thinking goes in Washington — punished by being deprived of delegates to the national conventions.
In an election year when there’s every reason to believe Florida’s 27 electoral votes will be crucial, the Democrats stripped Florida of all its convention delegates. (Yes, yes — this is the same Democratic Party that hammed it up interminably to “count every vote” after the 2000 election.) Perhaps this is part of a heretofore unknown get-out-the-vote strategy of irritating the living hell out of your own voters. The Republicans were only half as stupid as the Democrats (about the usual ratio), penalizing Florida 57 of its normal compliment of 114 delegates.
Democratic candidates went the Republicans one better by pledging not to campaign in Florida for the primary after the favored and offended mini-states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — whined about being crowded for the front-end glory (if such it is). This no-show policy (except for fund raisers — and consider how charmed Florida voters will be with candidates who can ask for Floridians’ money but not for their votes) probably benefits Mz. Hillary, who has consistently led Obama here by about 20 points in most polls.
But the Republican candidates aren’t so fastidious and will be riding right down on Florida after services are concluded in Nevada and South Carolina this weekend. Rudy Giuliani is already here, leading the charge in a state he’s bet heavily on and needs badly to win to stay in the race. The mayor has his work cut out for him. He led in national polls for most of 2007 and led by a lot in Florida polls for the same period. Now most polls show almost a dead-heat among Giuliani, Romney, McCain, and Huckabee. All hovering just above or just below 20 percent.
THIS WEEK GIULIANI and his “Tested — Ready — Now” emblazoned bus have made a campaign run from Miami to Jacksonville by way of the west coast with stops in big and small towns along the way. At each rally, after being introduced and whooped up by Steve Forbes, Giuliani hit themes that conservatives would be comfortable with — smaller government, lower taxes, supply-side economics, a tough approach toward Islamic jihadists, and a stay-with-it-until-we-succeed policy in Iraq. He declares himself a friend of the Second Amendment, and calls for tort reform and “less suing.”
The large crowd at the rally I attended in Largo (just north of St. Petersburg) was enthusiastic and supportive, even after Rudy showed up two hours late. No hostile questions. No badgering on the social issues. (There were a couple of people holding anti-abortion signs outside the restaurant looking about as lonely as the Maytag repairman.) Questions were about gun rights, immigration, and what kind of judges Giuliani would appoint. The faithful seemed happy with the answers they received.
His Rudyness has to hope there’s more of this kind of enthusiasm for him and his approach in Florida. Without a win here and some much needed traction, it’s hard to see where else he could win and how his campaign could succeed. He always bet big on Florida being his launching pad. But though they won’t say it, it’s certain that he and his campaign brain trust never imagined he would do as poorly as he has in the early states, finishing more than once well behind the guy from Texas wearing the tinfoil hat.
Rudy is here because Florida is more important to him than Nevada or South Carolina. The rest of the boys and their campaign staffs and their telemarketers will be here shortly after the votes are counted in South Carolina. I’m eager too see how it turns out. But I’m not eager to spend the next 10 days answering my telephone in this wise: “Hello. This is not a recording. This is Larry Thornberry actually speaking. If this is a sales or a political call, hang up now. If this is a friend, a relative, or a legitimate business call, please speak…”