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Florida takes center stage in 2012 campaign

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For the next 12 days, Florida will stand at the center of the 2012 Republican race, playing host to two debates — one tonight and a second on Sept. 22 — as well as a straw poll that will help shape the presidential nomination fight.

The next week and a half will also serve as the precursor to the Sunshine State primary early next year — a contest that many people believe could decide the identity of the party’s nominee.

“Early caucuses and primaries give the candidates a chance to shine with a certain segment of the electorate, but in Florida candidates will face the largest and most diverse GOP primary electorate of any early state,” said Sally Bradshaw, a longtime political adviser to former governor Jeb Bush.

Let’s look at the short- and long-term importance of Florida in the Republican race.

In the near term, Florida’s duel debates — tonight’s will be in Tampa and sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express — will amount to one of the first extended tests for Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Perry’s first appearance on the national stage — at last week’s California debate — was decidedly uneven. He shined on questions focused on jobs and the economy but struggled on things like Social Security and climate change.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has hammered Perry over his calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” since that debate and is likely to bring it up tonight. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, desperately hoping to reassert herself in the race, is likely to go at Perry as well on the retirement program

“If Perry gets through September without losing ground, he will be very tough to beat,” said Jon Lerner, a Republican consultant who served as an adviser to former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s presidential bid. “And Florida is the location of two of his biggest tests in September.”

The longer term impact of Florida is tougher to game out due to a) the uncertainty of when the state will hold its primary, and b) the result of the big four states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — likely to precede it in the process.

The Florida Republican party has made clear they plan to push their way to the front of the primary calendar and have not backed down in the face of threatened sanctions from the Republican National Committee.

Given Florida’s demographic diversity, size and importance in the general election, it’s hard to imagine that the candidates would go along with any sanction that makes the Sunshine State irrelevant.

Florida Republicans have until the end of the month to set a date for their primary, with the third week in January being eyed as the likeliest possibility by sharp observers.

That uncertainty is compounded by the fact that Florida will almost certainly be the fifth state to vote — meaning that what happens in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina could change the complexion of the race in the Sunshine State.

In conversations with a handful of unaligned strategists, however, there was broad agreement that if the race comes down to Romney and Perry — as almost everyone expects it to — Florida will likely be decisive.

“Romney and Perry will have the money to allow them to go a little further then previous candidates,” explained one operative with experience in Florida politics. The sourced added that if Perry wins Iowa and South Carolina and Romney claims New Hampshire (and less-important Nevada), then “Florida becomes the firewall” for the former governor.

The fight for Florida begins in earnest tonight. And whoever ultimately finds a way to win the state’s primary is likely to be the nominee.

Pawlenty backs Romney: Pawlenty endorsed Romney this morning during an appearance on Fox News Channels “Fox and Friends” and will serve as a co-chairman of Romney’s campaign.

“Alone among the contenders, he possesses the unique qualifications to confront and master our severe economic predicament,” Pawlenty said in a statement released later this morning. “His abiding faith in our country’s exceptional historical position as a beacon of freedom will make him the most important leader in a world that depends upon a strong America to stay at peace.”

Romney’s campaign tells The Fix that Pawlenty will be with Romney in South Carolina today and at tonight’s debate.

Pawlenty is hardly the first from his aborted campaign to jump on board with Romney. His campaign co-chairman, Vin Weber, has also done so.

The decision to endorse is interesting, though. If Pawlenty is considering being someone’s vice presidential running mate, endorsing one candidate over the others risks limiting your options when it comes to the so-called “veepstakes.”

Pawlenty dropped out of the 2012 race last month after a disappointing showing in the Ames Straw Poll.

Bachmann’s strategy shift: Bachmann’s campaign is telegraphing an aggressive effort at Monday’s debate, with the aim being to re-insert her in the frontrunner dialogue

Bachmann, who got lost in the shuffle at Wednesday’s debate in California in large part because she declined to engage with the other candidates, will promote Social Security as an important safety net for America’s seniors and criticze Perry, according to a spokeswoman.

Perry has called the entitlement program a “Ponzi scheme.”

This is an interesting tack from Bachmann, because it could put her at odds with some tea party supporters. Generally, though, most Republicans support the idea of a Social Security program.

Meanwhile, a pro-Bachmann super PAC is going up with TV and radio ads in Souther Carolina hitting Perry on illegal immigration.

The more active strategy is much needed; a new CNN/Opinion Research poll shows Bachmann sliding to 4 percent nationally, behind Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich.

Crunch time in NY-9: With just one more full day of campaigning left before Tuesday’s special election, Republicans appear very close to pulling an upset.

The campaign was halted to a large extent this weekend because of Sept. 11 observances and the Sabbath, which Democratic nominee David Weprin observed on Saturday.

In his stead, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) campaigned for him, urging people not to make the election about President Obama.

“If you want to send a message to Obama, call the White House,” Maloney said, according to Hotline On-Call. “If you want a great congressman that will fight for the district, vote for Weprin.”

For more on how Obama plays in the 9th, see our Monday Fix column.

Fixbits:

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman is worth as little as $15 million and as much as $66 million, according to his just-filed personal financial disclosure.

Cain is drawing some negative reaction for his web video commemorating the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It features the candidate singing “God Bless America” over powerful and graphic scenes of the attacks.

Hillary Clinton says there is less than a zero percent chance that she’ll run against Obama, in case you still weren’t sure.

Republican Mark Amodei is expected to win the Nevada special election on Tuesday going away.

No endorsement yet from Arizona illegal immigration activist and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) says the deficit reduction “supercommittee” will have to go after entitlements.

Longtime New Hampshire GOP staffer Wayne MacDonald ascends to chairman, replacing the recently resigned Jack Kimball.

PBS’s Jim Lehrer is out with a new book about presidential debates.

And make sure to check out Chris Cillizza on a panel at the American Action Network’s jobs forum Tuesday at 9 a.m. More details here.

Must-reads:

Republicans still searching for a presidential nominee” — Amy Gardner, Washington Post

5 things to watch as Washington’s political lines are redrawn” — Jerry Cornfield, Everett Herald

What the tea party is — and isn’t” — Dan Balz, Washington Post

Bachmann banking on Iowa more than ever” — Jennifer Jacobs, Des Moines Register

More on PostPolitics

Pawlenty endorses Romney

Fact checker: the job wars

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