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Essay

Beware of the Sunshine State, Where It's Easy To Get Burned

Rudy Giuliani was counting on a Florida primary win, but it's time to wake up and smell the oranges.
Rudy Giuliani was counting on a Florida primary win, but it's time to wake up and smell the oranges. (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)

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By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

If yesterday was the beginning of the end for Rudy Giuliani, it's fitting that it happened in Florida.

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Florida, home of sunshine and land scams -- how it continually betrays us. People are always looking for paradise there, or a fountain of youth. They're always saving up for half their lives to die there.

Florida is the place for dreams, political and otherwise. And for having your dreams dashed.

(Two words, as if they needed to be mentioned: Al. Gore.)

* * *

Does anyone drive to Florida anymore? No doubt they book cheap flights on the back of that Travelocity gnome. (Maybe they notice how cheap it is to fly to Mexico, and decide to skip Florida altogether.)

But let's pretend it's still the '70s, since those were good days for Florida, and let's say a family did drive, and let's say they drove a car with hand-crank windows and no air conditioning, because that's what they had. The kids would play a hand-slap game in the back that would inevitably turn ugly, and the dad might threaten to turn the car around without ever meaning to do it, and the whole hot, fraught, interminable journey would be broken only by bathroom stops and South of the Border billboards and, most of all, imaginings of Disney World. That journey is where the dream of Florida is formed.

Florida is as much about the imagining as anything else.

You'd need imagination to see yourself living in Florida if you'd visited the state a century ago. Hot and humid. Mosquito-heavy. All that swampland. Heck, much of Florida wasn't really land till somebody made it so, filling it in or draining it. There were, of course, unsavory characters who sold land that was still underwater. (Dreams dashed.)

The books about Florida's history have names like "Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams." DDT killed the mosquitoes. Spring break blossomed. (If we lived in Florida, we could be as orange as George Hamilton in "Where the Boys Are" or Gov. Charlie Crist on CNN.) Castro came to power and Florida became a dream state for a million-plus Cubans.

In 1940, Florida was the smallest state in the South in terms of population. Today it's the fourth-largest in the country, and people come to live there from all over, and older folks buy spots in retirement communities and wait for retirement to come. And imagine.

"A Styrofoam, paper-plate society," as some Florida Democratic Party bigwig put it some 20 years ago. Florida still feels that way. Everybody's coming from someplace else, and the old folks in Boca still talk like New Yorkers, because how else would you expect them to talk?

But Florida is tough on people. It may be a dream to visit, but it can be hell to live there. You've got rising property taxes, you've got rising homeowners' insurance. Ton of foreclosures. You've got overdevelopment, the Everglades dying. Storms with nice enough names and nasty behavior.

From the Orlando Sentinel this month: "Nearly half of the Floridians polled for the second-annual Sunshine State Survey say life in Florida is worse today than it was five years ago." Not what you want to see in the same sentence -- Sunshine State Survey and "life is worse."

Politicians, those experts of holding their fingers up to test the winds, should know the risks of Florida -- or if they don't, they should. It's massive and massively messy, like five states in one. Lots of weird politicians come out of that state, which happens to excel in things weird. Among them: Katherine Harris and her rages. Mark Foley and his pages. In 2000, all those elderly Jews in Palm Beach County voting for Pat Buchanan? C'mon! So then there was the dissection of the butterfly ballot and the recount and the lawyers, the ritual counting of hanging chads, the suspicions of conspiracies and cronyism (Harris again).

Giuliani put all his eggs into the Florida dream basket, to mix metaphors terribly, and for what seemed like ages, purveyors of Conventional Wisdom kept saying what a risk it was that he wasn't campaigning in Iowa and elsewhere. (The Conventionally Wise do tend to go on.) Could he pull it off? Could he win Florida?

No, as it turned out. He spent all that time there, but came in behind John McCain and Mitt Romney. Giuliani was holding events in recent days and fewer than 100 people were showing up. So much for dreams, fading like the weak winter sunlight in a place far from Florida.


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