TALLAHASSEE — Florida Republicans don't yet agree on who should oppose President Barack Obama next year, but they agree that the state must play an early and decisive role in selecting their party's nominee.
That goal took a step forward Friday with the selection of a nine-member committee that will quickly set the date of the state's 2012 presidential primary, most likely in early February.
The formation of the committee is something of a formality.
A consensus has taken hold among state Republican leaders that Florida should be fifth in the national primary and caucus parade, following only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
The Republican National Committee has decreed that only those states can hold primaries or caucuses before March 6 without being penalized by losing half their delegates. But Arizona recently set its primary for Feb. 28. In response South Carolina, which has been scheduled to vote the same day, is expected to move earlier.
Advocates of Florida's "Go Fifth" strategy say its size, diversity and lack of predictability all make it a microcosm of the country, not to mention that Tampa will host the 2012 Republican National Convention.
"You're running a national race in one state, so how good are you at reaching out to 20 million people who come from diverse backgrounds?" said former Gov. Bob Martinez, a member of the date-selection committee. "A large state like us with an early primary will tell us a lot about the candidates."
Gov. Rick Scott appointed Martinez to the panel, along with a deputy chief of staff and former GOP political operative, Jenn Ungru, and former Democratic Sen. Al Lawson of Tallahassee.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos selected three senators: fellow Republicans Rene Garcia of Hialeah and John Thrasher of St. Augustine and Democrat Gary Siplin of Orlando, who at times votes with Republicans.
House Speaker Dean Cannon chose three fellow lawmakers: Republicans Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami and Seth McKeel of Lakeland, and Democrat Cynthia Stafford of Miami.
Each of the three Republican leaders was required to appoint a Democrat.
Secretary of State Kurt Browning serves as the nonvoting chairman of the panel, which will hold its first meeting Friday in Tallahassee. The committee is required to set a date by Oct. 1, and the committee is expected to pin one down on Sept. 30.
Florida's make-or-break role in the nominating process was firmly established in 2008 when John McCain's victory here was seen as clinching his grip on the nomination.
At the same time, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani skipped the smaller early states to focus on Florida, but when he sputtered in the Sunshine State, his candidacy collapsed.
Like a game of political chicken, Florida leaders are keeping on eye on several other states toying with hopscotching their way to the head of the primary pack, including Missouri, Michigan and Georgia.
"The temptation is to be as early as you can," said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock. "It's quite understandable why Florida would want to get ahead of everybody else besides those four, but the difficulty is as you try to do that, you're not the only one."
Bullock agreed that Florida deserves to be a "star" among the states in the nominating process next year.
"It's competitive where a lot of states are not," he said.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.