The state of Florida could prove to be the virtual tie-breaker in the Republican presidential race starting with a debate Monday in Tampa and ending with an early primary in 2012 that conceivably could wrap up the nomination.
It's quite plausible that front-runners Rick Perry and Mitt Romney could roughly divide the first four contests, in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. If that happens, Florida would be the difference maker, a prize so big in a state so central to presidential elections that the loser might struggle to stay afloat.
"My guess is that Florida is going to be the big kahuna," said Brad Coker, a Florida-based pollster for Mason-Dixon who conducts surveys nationwide. Florida is much larger, diverse and expensive than the other four early-voting states, he said, and so it rewards the type of campaigning a Republican must do around the country to oust President Barack Obama in November 2012.
Of course, events over the next few months could upend that scenario. Perry, the Texas governor, or Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, might stumble. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann could revive her struggling campaign. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman might catch fire. A new candidate, such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, might jump in.
Then there's the scheduling of those caucuses and primaries, which isn't set.
For now, campaign strategists assume Florida will be the fifth contest, as early as Jan. 31, and the first in a big state.
Florida Republicans don't follow presidential politics as intensely as do GOP activists in Iowa and New Hampshire. Nor do they expect one-on-one encounters with candidates.
When the nominating process rolls into Florida, "the days of the house parties are behind you," said Phil Musser, a former director of the Republican Governors Association and a frequent consultant in the state.
In the next two weeks, Florida Republicans will get ample attention, beginning with Monday night's two-hour debate sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express.
The forum will include the eight contenders who debated last week in California, where Perry made his national debut. Romney is almost certain to renew his criticisms of Perry for calling Social Security's funding structure "a Ponzi scheme."
The candidates also will have their first collective chance to dissect the jobs proposal that Obama outlined Thursday.
The Orlando debate starts off the three-day "Presidency 5" event where thousands of Florida Republicans will mingle, hear speeches and vote in a presidential straw poll.
Will Weatherford, incoming speaker of the Florida House, said many party donors and activists are on the sidelines for now, but the big weekend will give them a good long look at the contenders. "A lot of people will choose sides after that," he said.
In the last two competitive GOP primaries, Florida joined South Carolina to form a one-two Southern punch that essentially resolved disagreements in Iowa and New Hampshire.
In 2008, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won in Iowa, but quickly faltered. Arizona Sen. John McCain captured the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, and then eliminated all doubt in Florida by beating Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani was embarrassed after pouring nearly all his money and hopes into Florida. The lesson, campaign strategists say, is that a candidate must build momentum in Iowa or New Hampshire to gain credibility in Florida.
Florida was even crueler to Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who took 3 percent of the 2008 primary vote. Paul is running for president again.
In 2000, McCain carried New Hampshire after Texas Gov. George W. Bush won in Iowa. Bush overtook McCain in a brutal South Carolina contest, then crushed McCain in Florida and went on to win the presidency.
In the 2012 election's early and highly speculative stages, strategists see Iowa and South Carolina as potentially good fits for Perry, while Romney could do well in New Hampshire and Nevada.
Under that scenario, Florida "has the real chance to be the decider," Musser said. For now, he said, "it's very wide open."
Florida has large numbers of every type of Republican voter. They are spread hundreds of miles apart, in expensive media markets.
Unlike the other early-voting states, Florida's primary is open only to people who have been registered as Republicans for many weeks, barring independents from influencing the nomination.
"There's no question that the Republican base in Florida is very conservative," said Todd Harris, a veteran strategist aligned with the state's GOP senator, Marco Rubio. "But they are not nearly as uniform in ideology as the base in South Carolina or Iowa caucus-goers."
"Perry will feel at home, culturally and politically, in the Panhandle," Harris said. "Romney will probably do better in the critical Interstate 4 corridor," which is perhaps the state's most diverse and up-for-grabs region. It runs from Daytona Beach through Orlando and to Tampa.
Many other GOP constituencies also must be catered to. They include Cuban-Americans in Miami, Midwestern retirees on the Gulf coast, and New York retirees on the south Atlantic coast.
"We have the social, economic and racial diversity that some of the other early primary states don't have," Weatherford said. It forces candidates to spend more, travel more and stretch themselves in new ways, he said.
"You can't use the same speech in Dade County that you use in the Panhandle," Weatherford said. Miami is the largest city in that county.
Some Republicans think Perry may have hurt himself among Florida's retirees with his sharp criticisms of Social Security. Others, however, note that Rubio has included Social Security among programs that were "crafted without any thought as to how they will be funded in future years."
"Because it weakened our people and didn't take (into) account the simple math of not being able to spend more money than you have, it was destined to fail" and must be revised, Rubio said last month.
Coker said Rubio might catch less heat for such remarks because Floridians see him as deliberate and intellectual. Perry, he said, "was like a bull in a china shop."
"If you want to talk Social Security in Florida," Coker said, "you must talk softly."
He said it's too early to handicap the Florida primary, but Romney has a head start organizationally because of his efforts in 2008.
Party insiders say former Gov. Jeb Bush, whose father and brother were presidents, remains highly popular among Florida Republicans. His family in Texas reportedly has chilly relations with Perry, fueling speculation that Jeb Bush might endorse Romney.
Weatherford doubts it will happen. "He wants people to earn it," he said.
Rubio, the 40-year-old senator with strong ties to Cuban-Americans, tea partyers and others, also could deliver a helpful endorsement, but party activists don't think he will.
Whoever wins the GOP nomination might strongly consider Rubio as a running mate. He could help carry a state that repeatedly proves crucial in presidential elections, and one the GOP desperately wants to wrest from Obama next year.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.