Yet by all accounts, the race to win Florida, probably the first big state on the 2012 primary calendar, is wide open.
So it was that Tim Pawlenty touched down here after announcing his candidacy Monday in Iowa. In a 24-hour sweep through the Sunshine State, he raised money, expanded his Rolodex and won over some prominent GOP operatives who backed Romney or others in 2008 but are looking for a fresh face this time.
“This is a place that’s open to people from other places,” Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor, said in a brief interview Tuesday in the Coral Gables office of Ann Herberger, a top Romney fundraiser in 2008 and a longtime adviser to former Florida governor Jeb Bush who is now guiding Pawlenty through Florida’s vast Republican orbit.
“This is a dynamic, open place, and I think it’s going to be favorable to me,” Pawlenty added. The Florida campaign, he said, “is not only an opportunity. It’s a necessity.”
Earlier, he told a bank of local news cameras: “Florida is one of the big horses we’ve got to ride.”
It’s a horse all the candidates have to ride — at least those who hope to become the Republican nominee. Florida, after all, is where John McCain sealed the nomination three years ago.
The 2012 GOP primary calendar remains fluid, but Florida expects to be fifth, holding a primary sometime in March after voting is finished in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
“Florida is the first state whose primary will really mirror the nation,” said Sally Bradshaw, a longtime GOP operative here who signed up to work for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour but has not backed another candidate since Barbour bowed out.
“There’s so much diversity here, you have to win Florida to be the nominee,” Bradshaw added. “The electorate here is largely undecided. Voters in Florida are not focused. We’re not Iowa, we’re not New Hampshire or even South Carolina. People here have not begun to pay attention.”
Unlike in the other early states, no candidate has particularly strong roots or an imposing network of support here. The Florida Republican Party will host a straw poll in September that could give a shot in the arm to a candidate who mobilizes grass-roots supporters.
This is an opportunity for all the major candidates, but perhaps most for Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor and former ambassador to China who has not officially declared a bid. Both underdogs are jockeying to establish themselves as the leading challenger to Romney, who, though also an unofficial candidate at this point, is the presumptive front-runner.