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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.

The Iowa straw poll is cemented as a can't-miss event for most presidential candidates looking to propel their campaign into the first tier of contenders. It can draw up to a third of all eventual attendees of the caucuses, and is among the first true tests of a candidate’s ability to connect with voters.

Florida, by virtue of its delegate count, votes in the Electoral College and status as swing state, will always be a White House campaign target that attracts candidates. Republican political operatives say that the state’s GOP straw poll also could prove to be a bellwether of sorts in the 2012 race, but explain that it is too early to tell how well it will compete with Iowa’s.

“Will a straw poll there get attention? Sure. Campaigns will be inclined to show party leaders and activists that they are taking the state and its Republican base seriously,” a strategist affiliated with a prospective 2012 candidate said. “Is it a wise commitment of resources for campaigns? That's not so clear yet.”

The Iowa straw poll will also feature an accompanying presidential debate broadcast by the Fox News Channel, with the three-day event essentially held on the Iowa State University campus.

Over the past few weeks, the state parties of Iowa and Florida have been at odds over when the Sunshine State might hold its primary. Florida wants to hold it earlier than allowed according to Republican National Committee rules, and the Iowa GOP has responded aggressively to protect the Hawkeye State’s status as the home of the first-in-the-nation nominating contest. Other traditional early states have sided with Iowa.

But that disagreement notwithstanding, senior Iowa Republicans interviewed for this story did not react defensively to the Florida GOP’s move to promote its straw poll as a significant, 2012 campaign event.

These Iowa Republicans dismissed an assertion by some Florida GOP operatives that the Sunshine State offers candidates a better test of national viability, which they attribute to Florida’s demographic and regional variety. They noted that Ames is Iowa’s geographic center and draws Republican primary voters of all stripes from every corner of the state, and emphasized that both states are perennial battlegrounds. Iowa is, however, one of the whitest states in the nation.

“The straw poll is the first proving ground for the first-in-the-nation caucus state,” Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn said. “The event tests both a campaign’s organizational strength and how well a candidate’s message resonates with caucus goers. Iowa is wide open, and the straw poll will be a vital measuring stick for all of the presidential campaigns serious about beating President Obama in 2012.”

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