Florida all but clinched the Republican presidential nomination for John McCain in January 2008 and state leaders set a similarly early primary for 2012 with the goal of again ensuring outsized influence for Sunshine State Republicans.
But political experts increasingly see Florida's Jan. 31 primary as likely a pit stop on a long journey to the nomination rather than the finish line.
That could mean a long, bruising intra-party fight before the GOP turns its focus on President Barack Obama, and it could give a leg up to Mitt Romney. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has surged ahead of Romney in many polls, but Romney at this point has the resources and campaign organization best equipped for a protracted campaign in state after state.
"I definitely think it will go well beyond Florida's primary,'' said Republican National Committee co-chairwoman Sharon Day of Broward County. "Just look at the way the race keeps changing."
Among nearly 100 veteran political professionals and activists surveyed for the latest St. Petersburg Times Florida Insider Poll, more than two thirds expect the contest to extend well beyond Florida's primary.
"For the first time I'm thinking that is possible,'' said veteran campaign strategist Sally Bradshaw, who previously expected a Florida campaign featuring three or more serious candidates but increasingly sees a Gingrich versus Romney race. "If it's a three-person race, you need a lot less of the vote to be the winner,'' she said. "In a two-man race it can be a much closer contest. . . . If there's not a decisive win in Florida, that means the contest probably continues on after Florida."
An elongated primary season could actually wind up diminishing Florida's significance in picking the nominee.
State leaders bucked national party rules in setting a January primary, and as a result Florida will have only about 50 delegates at stake, half its normal allotment.
On top of that, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said in Tampa this week that RNC members still mad about Florida's primary date could also insist that Florida divide up its delegates proportionally based on every candidate's tally in Florida, rather than award all 50 delegates to the winner as the state party intends.
If the race comes down to a fight for every last delegate, that could make a big difference. Hypothetically the winner of Florida could wind up with 20 delegates, while the second-place finisher receives 15.
"If you're talking winning 17 or 18 delegates, that's an awfully small number of delegates to spend several million dollars chasing,'' noted Tallahassee-based Republican consultant David Johnson, an adviser to presidential candidate Jon Huntsman.
The latest polls show Gingrich with significant leads over Romney in Florida, South Carolina and Iowa, and gaining ground on Romney in New Hampshire. If that Gingrich momentum continues, Florida may indeed decide it.
"If somebody runs the table in every contest including Florida, it's wrapped up,'' said Miami-based Republican consultant Roger Stone.
Momentum typically drives primaries more than delegate counts, but Democrats can attest to how delegates ultimately matter most. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton competed relentlessly through the spring of 2008 until she conceded in early June.
Their example is partly why RNC chairman Priebus said he is not worried about a long, nasty primary damaging the ultimate nominee.
"Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton ripped each other's throats out until June, and look what happened,'' Priebus said.
Florida's delegate picture should be clearer after the Republican National Committee holds its winter meeting in New Orleans in January. Whether or not Florida decides the nomination or awards only a handful of delegates to the winner on Jan. 31, the state is sure to be the center of attention.
"I still think Florida is extremely important," said Bradshaw. "More weight will be given to a win in Florida than will be given to, say, a win in South Carolina, because Florida is much more diverse and much more representative."
Times computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at [email protected]