Florida finds itself in the thick of the battle for the White House Monday, hosting a Republican debate in which the fate of entitlement programs could take center stage in a state with a huge proportion of elderly voters.
Eight candidates will converge on the Florida State Fairgrounds for the televised debate in which new conservative flag-bearer Rick Perry, the Texas governor who shot to the top of many Republican polls the moment he entered the race late last month, is expected to tussle with main rival Mitt Romney.
And with the state being the largest to host an early nominating contest for the presidential race, Florida may well wind up being the turning point in the Republican fight to challenge President Barack Obama in November 2012.
“Florida will be the deciding factor in both the Republican primary race and the general election,” Javier Manjarres, editor of the Shark Tank, a conservative blog about Florida politics, told AFP.
It is a stronghold of the growing bloc of US Hispanic voters, many of whom want to rein in government spending.
But the retirement-haven state also critically has the highest proportion of elderly voters in the country, as high as one in three, by some counts.
And so Perry will have to tread carefully in Florida, where his rants against the Social Security benefit program, which he recently described as a “Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie,” may not sit well with millions of the state’s retirees.
The issue is one of several that have pitted Perry against Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who had been the longtime frontrunner until his Texas revival took a cannonball-style jump into the candidate pool.
The so-called “Tea Party Republican Debate,” moderated by CNN, could be considered Round 2 after the rivals clashed over jobs creation and entitlement programs in Perry’s first presidential debate, in Simi Valley, California.
The Romney campaign called Perry “reckless” and “wrong” on his Social Security position, while Perry spokesman Mark Miner shot back, accusing Romney of “scare tactics.”
Several observers suggest the GOP nominating process is already a two-horse race, with Perry and Romney together sucking up about 50 percent support in polls — 32 percent for the Perry and 18 for Romney, according to a CNN poll released Friday.
But the six others appearing Monday in Florida — congresswoman Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, former governor Jon Huntsman, Representative Ron Paul and ex-senator Rick Santorum — will want to flex their political muscle in a bid to remain relevant and revive their stalled campaigns.
Bachmann has slipped to third, but Manjarres isn’t counting out the lawmaker seen as a darling of the Tea Party movement that calls for smaller government and lower taxes.
“While the country focuses on Romney-Perry, Bachmann could very well steal the show, bolstering her status as one of the frontrunners,” he said.
Fourteen months before election day, both Democrats and Republicans are gearing up to conquer Florida, a state of 18.8 million people and 29 of the 270 electoral votes a candidate needs to win the White House — the highest number of some eight to 12 swing states that often decide national elections.
Huntsman, who served as Obama’s envoy to China — and whose campaign has barely got traction — agreed that Florida was “critically important.”
“In fact, I do believe that this is where the Republican nominee will be chosen,” he told CNN.
The state is eager to move on from the tarnished reputation it earned when it was the scene of a controversial and embarrassing vote re-count following the 2000 presidential election. That re-count was halted by the US Supreme Court, in effect awarding the presidency to George W. Bush over Al Gore.
As a sign of the state’s growing political sway, the Republican leadership decided to hold its national convention next August in Tampa.
And after the debate, several of the candidates will stick around in the state, with two more opportunities to go head to head in the next 10 days.
They will likely offer proposals to revive the stalled US economy as well as that of Florida, where unemployment hovers at 10.7 percent, above the national average, and real estate and construction have suffered body blows.
Democrats outnumber Republicans by some 700,000 voters in Florida, but Manjarres said Republicans are a more organized voting bloc and can outnumber their rivals at the polls.