On the eve of its third anniversary, USA Today has given birth.

Gannett Co. Inc., pleased with the performance of its national daily, has redesigned one of its Florida newspapers to create a state-oriented clone of USA Today. Late last month, Gannett renamed Today, its Florida Space Coast newspaper, Florida Today.

The colorful Florida Today will focus on state and local news coverage, giving Gannett the opportunity to market USA Today and Florida Today as a package designed to meet the national and regional news demands of Florida readers. The plan is to test the 72,000-circulation Florida Today in its local market in the Cape Canaveral area before deciding whether to promote statewide circulation.

Gannett Chairman Allen H. Neuharth, who has been involved in the development of Florida Today, started the Today newspaper for Gannett in 1966. Is Florida Today the first of many state-wide newspapers that Neuharth intends to create and market along with USA Today?

"We have an experiment going on in Florida; I consider it an R&D project," Neuharth said. "We're trying to make a statewide newspaper in terms of coverage, not circulation, out of Florida Today."

But if the initial response is positive, statewide circulation may be just around the corner, according to Publisher Frank Vega, who said Florida Today "will provide papers wherever people want to buy them." Vega was circulation vice president for USA Today before moving to Florida.

"I think we've added 22 or 23 people to the news staff and moved into intensive coverage of the local and state scene, heavily in sports," Neuharth said. "We're adding a lot of color. I don't want to mislead you and make a big deal out of this. If it works, we have some potential. We're trying to make its appearance somewhat like USA Today to see whether any of that formula will help the circulation of the local paper, and whether it might also help the circulation of USA Today by having them be more alike in appearance."

USA Today, which will be three years old on Sept. 15, is the nation's third-largest daily newspaper with circulation of more than 1.3 million. Gannett executives believe the newspaper will hit the break-even point by the fourth quarter of 1987, aided by $40 million a year in additional income generated by increasing the single copy price from 35 cents to 50 cents a day.

Although it is too soon to tell what the impact of the price increase will be on circulation, USA Today Publisher Cathleen Black said the preliminary numbers are encouraging. She said circulation dropped temporarily less than 10 percent when USA Today increased its price a year ago from 25 cents to 35 cents a day, before rebounding. Black said she thinks the "one-to-two-coin" psychological hurdle that confronted USA Today when it went from 25 cents to 35 cents may be greater than the hurdle from 35 cents to 50 cents.

Black said 65 percent of USA Today's daily sales are single copy, while 35 percent are subscription. The single-copy sales are split evenly between the company's 110,000 newspaper vending machines, and newsstands. USA Today is available to about 70 percent of the U.S. population, and about 18,000 copies of a special two-section international edition are sold abroad daily in Europe and the Middle East, Black said. She said USA Today will begin an Asian edition sometime this fall.

USA Today, published Monday through Friday, has extended its daily reach to the weekend by creating USA Weekend, a Sunday magazine inserted in more than 200 newspapers around the country. Gannett created USA Weekend by renaming and redesigning Family Weekly magazine, which it acquired from CBS Inc. earlier this year for $42.5 million.

For USA Today to become profitable, it will have to continue to attract additional advertising, as it has in 1985. Black said through Sept. 1, USA Today advertising is 64 percent ahead of last year in pages and almost 100 percent ahead in revenue.

"Every advertiser is basically paying a full-page rate to be in USA Today, which is $31,163 for a full four-color page," Black said. "A page in The Wall Street Journal for black and white is over $70,000."

Black said the maximum number of pages Gannett can have in USA Today is 48, with about 21 reserved for advertising. In the fourth quarter, USA Today will sell out advertising on most Fridays, she said, adding that the newspaper has averaged 12.5 pages of daily advertising this year.

"I think USA Today as a journalistic product is pretty close to what we want it to be," Neuharth said. "I think the Sports section is excellent, maybe outstanding. I think the A first section still struggles a little bit. It hasn't quite found the niche we're after consistently.

"USA Today certainly continues to be a deficit operation, and that is what it was planned to be at this point in its development. Even if USA today is quite successful, it still won't be more than 15 percent of the company, give or take a point or two, and we're aware of that. Because of its nationwide image, we're also aware of the fact that it has a higher visibility than our paper in Boise, Idaho, or Utica, N.Y."