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Florida GOP Looks to Boost State's 2012 Influence

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The unusually wide-open nature of the race for the Republican presidential nomination could elevate September’s Florida GOP straw poll and make a strong finish in Orlando as important as success in Ames at the always-crucial August Iowa straw poll.

Florida Republicans declined to describe their Sept. 22 to 24 straw poll, set for the Orange County Convention Center, as more influential or important in generating national notoriety and campaign momentum than its Aug. 11 to 13 Iowa counterpart, which often serves as the unofficial launch of the GOP presidential primary contest.

But they do believe that a healthy showing in Florida’s straw poll could be just as coveted, given the combination of a late-starting GOP primary compared to 2008, Florida’s early spot on the primary calendar and political factors unique to the Sunshine State that allow candidates an opportunity to demonstrate appeal among a wide breadth of voter demographics.

“Iowa is an early disqualifier of a lot of candidates. I think Florida’s role is more of a closer than an opener,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said.

The Florida Republican Party’s fifth presidential straw poll — referred to internally as “Presidency 5” — will take place over three days beginning Thursday, Sept. 22, and be paired with a GOP primary debate hosted by the Fox News Channel. The party did not conduct a straw poll in 2007, and the event has exerted varying levels of influence on the presidential contest in the past.

Given Iowa’s position as the first state in the nation to hold a nominating contest and the significance attributed to victory there, success in the straw poll is seen as a prelude to performance in the caucuses and a sign of a campaign’s organizing strength. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee finished second in the 2007 straw poll, and went on to win the 2008 Iowa caucuses; then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush won the 1999 straw poll, and proceeded to finish first in the 2000 caucuses.

The Florida Republican Party is anticipating more national attention and press coverage for its straw poll compared to some previous events, and is actively promoting the event to grass-roots activists in the Sunshine State to ensure a large turnout. Sally Bradshaw, a longtime Florida GOP operative, said the slow-starting primary campaign and lack of a clear voter favorite could position the Florida straw poll to play an influential role in the 2012 contest.

“The difference this go-around is that the field is so wide open,” Bradshaw said. “The fact that there is not a presumptive frontrunner may be why people think that is the case.”

Bradshaw has deep experience in presidential campaigns. She advised former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during the 2008 campaign, but has signed on with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour for 2012.

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