With the fourth contest in the 2012 Republican primary season just days away, the race in Florida has become increasingly heated. As evident from recent debates, tensions run high and attacks abound. The Florida primary may very well be the most significant election in the nomination process, providing the champion the momentum necessary to convince the GOP that he is the most qualified. Governor Mitt Romney and Speaker Newt Gingrich have fought tirelessly for the lead in the primary season thus far, and a victory in the Sunshine State would provide a valuable boost to the winner’s campaign. Senator Rick Santorum, recently declared the victor in the Iowa caucus, would also greatly benefit from a first or second place victory, as it would provide the spark that his campaign has lacked since his impressive finish in Iowa. Finally, Congressman Ron Paul, the only candidate who has not claimed a top finish to date, is perhaps most in need of a victory in the near future to provide confidence to his supporters and voters across America.
Florida offers the winner of Tuesday’s election far more delegates, fifty, than any of the past three states, despite losing half of its votes (it had 99 originally) due to a penalty for setting its January 31 election date earlier than March 1, the earliest date allowed by the Republican National Party. Florida is one of five states, along with New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan and Arizona, to suffer delegate losses in 2012 for violating voting date regulations. However, the loss of delegates is likely compensated for by increased influence in determining the future of the election and this is presumably the Florida Republican Party’s motive for setting its date earlier than permitted. This highlights a recent trend of states attempting to move their primary election dates earlier each election year in an effort to be more influential in determining the nominee. A primary in a state such as Florida with an earlier voting date could play a significant role in the primary process, resulting in a candidate dropping out or gaining momentum that he rides to the nomination, while a state whose election is on Super Tuesday (when eleven other states are voting) is relatively inconsequential in determining the nominee, who may have all but won the race at that stage.
So who is in prime position to win Tuesday’s race? Following last week’s South Carolina primary in which Gingrich defeated Romney by a 13 point margin, Gingrich enjoyed a seven point lead in Florida. His strong debate performances were mostly responsible for this lead, in which his fiery rebuttals to Fox News’ Juan Williams and CNN’s John King received standing ovations and impressed conservatives. Coupled with Mitt Romney’s relatively dry debate performances and the criticism the Governor received for how he handled calls to release his tax return statements, Gingrich began to win over skeptics who previously thought he was incapable of defeating President Obama. However, according to the latest Rasmussen poll released Thursday, Speaker Gingrich’s lead has evaporated, as Mitt Romney has jumped into the front runner position, claiming 39% support in Florida, compared to Gingrich’s 31%; Rick Santorum has 12% support in Florida, and Paul (who has actually already moved to Maine to begin campaigning) has just 9%. Without the luxury of another debate, Gingrich may not be able to recover his lead before Tuesday.
The candidates know the economy will be at the forefront of concerns for Floridians, who suffer from a 9.9% unemployment rate. While all claim they will cut taxes drastically and balance the budget to reduce the U.S. debt, Romney has an edge as a result of his business experience at Bain Capital (though this has been used against him in recent weeks as well). Another issue that is significant to Floridians (17.3% of which are retired) is entitlement reform, and Social Security and Medicare reform are issues that all the candidates have promised to address as President. All candidates publicly support Congressman Paul Ryan’s proposals for reform, but none have offered specific plans that have attracted significant attention. These two issues, the economy and entitlement reform, are key issues in the Florida election, and will be in the general election, but no candidate has emerged as having the strongest, most supported plans to date, which emphasizes the significance of this election to the future of the primary season.
One thing is certain: Tuesday’s election has the potential to provide momentum to the victor and a major inhibitor to those with weak performances. And while the selection of the nominee does not hinge solely upon the results, it will likely provide clarity on the future of the race, with the hectic March rush just around the corner.
Photo Credit: International Business Times