In recent months, nearly every likely Republican 2012 presidential candidate has made his or her voice heard in Florida, courting potential campaign donors at big-ticket speaking engagements and invitation-only dinners.
With its high number of votes in the electoral college, Florida has long been one of the nation’s most important swing states, and a vital battleground in presidential elections. Often noted for its nail-bitingly close elections, Florida’s choice for president is generally a fair indication of the election’s overall winner. In fact, the state has voted with the winning candidate in nine out of the past 10 election cycles.
As a result, even if they haven’t officially announced their candidacy, it’s hard to disassociate the arrival of high-profile GOP figures from the 2012 presidential campaigns they are likely mulling over.
Former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin made a stop in North Florida last year, speaking at an anti-abortion event in Jacksonville. Palin has long made clear her aspirations for the White House, and has dropped hints at speaking events since losing the 2008 election. Palin played a significant role in Florida’s own midterm elections, endorsing fellow tea party favorite Pam Bondi for attorney general.
But with the recent publicity surrounding the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — which many linked to Palin’s infamous “political crosshairs” maps and comments like “Don’t retreat. Reload.” — the popularity of the former Wasilla mayor with a penchant for one-liners seems to be waning.
A recent Vision Critical poll found that 38 percent of Americans say their opinion of Palin has worsened over the past year. The same poll found that a majority (64 percent) view her as inexperienced and 58 percent said that she is more “style than substance.” The results are a far cry from an August 2008 poll, which showed that Palin was the top choice to represent the GOP in 2012.
Other would-be nominees for the presidency have been making headlines in Florida.
In January, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (who has made it a point to distance himself from Palin recently) was one of the few hopefuls to speak at a Hispanic Leadership Network Conference in Coral Gables. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a fluent Spanish speaker with close ties to the Hispanic community, helped organize the event, extending invites to several potential Republican presidential candidates.
Hispanic populations proved to be key for many Republicans elected during the 2010 midterm contests. Conservative Hispanics gained seven House seats, won gubernatorial campaigns in New Mexico and Nevada, and Marco Rubio, also a Republican, won his Senate race with 55 percent of the Latino vote.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour recently acted as keynote speaker to a group in Naples, focusing on current affairs, while subtly making allusions to a presidential run. During his 40-minute speech, Barbour said that experience in Washington would bode well for a political campaign: “I can’t deny I’m a Washington insider. … But I think people want someone who can get things done.”
Barbour was reported to be considering a presidential run as early as 2010 and, considering he helped found the D.C.-based lobbying firm BGR Group, he is viewed as extremely well-connected and politically influential. But Barbour has a lot of damage control ahead of him, too — comments he made praising the pro-segregation Citizens Council landed him in hot water in his home state, which many political analysts see as a major setback to a presidential campaign.
His appearance in Florida came only days after he told a room of South Carolina Republicans that, should he start a 2012 campaign, he would make a “serious effort.” The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Barbour was calling wealthy Republican donors with a message to “keep their powder dry” till he decides whether or not he will run.
In June, former presidential hopeful and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney visited Jacksonville for a fundraiser benefiting then-state GOP chairman and state Sen. John Thrasher. After being introduced as “hopefully the next president,” Romney shied away from campaign talk, saying he felt like his colleagues were “starting a campaign” for him when he “hadn’t even thought about it yet.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee made headlines last spring when he changed his voter registration to Florida. Though he films a Fox News show in New York City, Huckabee and his wife rent a home in the Florida panhandle and he made a high-profile endorsement of would-be governor Bill McCollum during the midterm elections. Allegations that Huckabee’s endorsement was for sale never got much traction, but made headlines nonetheless.
Speaking at an event in St. Petersburg in April, Huckabee did mention a potential 2012 campaign — but not his own. Comparing him to President Obama, Huckabee said that Marco Rubio had all the talent needed to win a presidential election: “I’m awfully proud to say I was with [Rubio] when he was 50 points down, not 50 points up. Now I feel like a prophet.”
Others likely to start up a campaign in the near future? Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who visited West Palm Beach last week and made an endorsement for Florida’s attorney general, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who headlined a GOP dinner in Boca Raton in late May.
Another potential candidate currently making headlines is recently resigned U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman. Huntsman’s resignation sparked speculation that he is likely considering a 2012 White House run, and President Obama added fuel to the fire when he hinted at the same thing during a recent news conference. Jacksonville consultant Susie Wiles, who acted as campaign manager for Florida Gov. Rick Scott, was recently tapped to run a political action committee supporting Huntsman.
Several likely candidates have also already started spending heavily in the state that will likely determine their fate.
Palin’s political action committee (SarahPAC) took in $3.5 million last year, only $7,000 of which went to Florida candidates. Newly minted Sen. Rubio got $5,000, while Allen West and Tom Rooney each got $1,000.
Romney’s Free and Strong America PAC, meanwhile, spent more than $55,000 on Florida candidates in the 2010 midterm elections — with $5,125 going to Rubio. Romney’s PAC raised more than $5.5 million in 2010, ending the year with nearly $800,000. In addition to his national PAC (which by law can only receive individual donations capped at $5,000) Romney has created a network of affiliated, state-level PACs, thereby ensuring that he is well-connected nationwide, and has a hefty chunk of change with which to campaign.