All right, Florida. Time to start paying attention to the presidential campaign. The next few weeks will be crucial.
Some of you have already tuned in. But others may only be aware that a few relatively unknown Democrats are running, including beleaguered Bill Clinton, and that a couple of Republican right-wingers are challenging President Bush.
That's okay. The candidates are just beginning to pay attention to Florida, too.
Until now, they have been campaigning in New Hampshire, which prides itself on having the first presidential primary every four years. That primary is Tuesday. Immediately afterward, you'll see a blizzard of campaign activity in the South, where Florida is one of 11 states holding primaries on Super Tuesday, March 10.
Florida is a big and important state for both political parties. Clinton plans to head straight for Orlando the day after the New Hampshire primary, and columnist Pat Buchanan is to have dinner with big-name Republicans in Tampa on Saturday night. The other candidates _ and the campaign commercials _ won't be far behind.
Before the campaign heads your way, you'll get a clue from New Hampshire as to how the candidates are doing. Heaven knows how the voting will go Tuesday; it promises to be a wild finish.
But for Floridians, the New Hampshire vote is only marginally instructive. The states are different, the campaign styles are different and the issues may have to be adjusted.
There's only one issue in New Hampshire: the economy.
The 1980s were boom times here, especially in the more urban areas around Concord, Manchester and Nashua. Population grew 20 percent, and New Hampshire has the glitzy shopping centers to prove it. Indeed, only Florida grew faster in the 1980s among states east of the Mississippi River.
Both states helped elect George Bush to the presidency with more than 60 percent of their votes.
Then came the recession. Unemployment has tripled in New Hampshire since 1988; one in 10 jobs has been lost. Banks have failed. Half the population lives in hardscrabble rural areas that have suffered acutely. In the remote mountains of northern New Hampshire _ so far north that highway signs warn of "Moose X-ing" _ workers' prayers were answered last week when the James River paper mill decided to keep three plants open. Still, more layoffs are announced somewhere nearly every day.
New Hampshire prides itself on low taxes. A personal income tax is anathema here as it is in Florida. There's not even a state sales tax. Eighty-nine cents means 89 cents.
But the lack of funds shows up everywhere. New Hampshire schools don't offer kindergarten, and the highway system is so wretched that white stripes are a luxury. These Yankee Republicans who love to hate government are now looking to Washington for economic salvation. They'll even consider a Democrat.
New Hampshire voters on Tuesday will choose the men they think are most likely to create jobs, restore the banks and boost business.
Florida is feeling the recession, too. But if you are interested in other issues _ health care, the environment, education _ the New Hampshire vote won't tell you much. The economy predominates.
New Hampshire is also a small sample _ maybe 400,000 people will cast ballots _ with a tradition of voting to send a message. In years past, voters occasionally have chosen write-ins, underdogs and upstarts. That's one reason why Buchanan's insurgent campaign against Bush and the write-in effort for Democrat Mario Cuomo are taken seriously.
New Hampshire voters also like to fool the media and are happy to lie to pollsters.
"It's the only defense a citizen has. It's neat. It's fun!" said Donella Meadows, a Dartmouth College professor. Her household is getting three calls a night from poll-takers, she said. She's planning to vote for Jerry Brown, but she tells pollsters she's writing in David Duke (who has not campaigned here).
Nearly every one of New Hampshire's voters is white. Civil rights and immigration have not been major issues. Although voters express concern for Haitian refugees, nobody talks about Fidel Castro or English-only laws or an influx of immigrant children into schools.
If diversity is not New Hampshire's strength, however, information is.
With just 1.1-million people _ fewer than Pinellas and Hillsborough counties combined _ any voter can manage to meet any candidate. In a typical day, a candidate may shake hands at a factory gate, speak to a United Way breakfast, visit law offices and town halls, speak to a Rotary Club lunch, take calls on a radio show and end up at a reception in someone's living room. They do it day after day, for months.
Bush won the New Hampshire primary in 1988 after visiting a truck stop.
There are few glittery cocktail galas, like the ones in big hotels in Orlando and Miami. New Hampshire voters, who are desired more for the votes they cast than the money they contribute, show up at campaign events in battered parkas from L.L. Bean. The candidates and their aides are conspicuous in wool and cashmere topcoats.
Voters can shake hands with a candidate, then stand around and talk to him. They can pin him down about a proposal or criticize his record. They can hear all the candidates speak more than once; read a barrage of coverage in newspapers from New Hampshire, Boston and New York; and watch debates, TV call-in shows, 30-minute infomercials and 30-second spots. Many voters will be making up their minds at the last minute.
The New Hampshire primary is routinely criticized for having too much influence on the presidential campaign, but I'm happy to have these people make the first cut. They are savvy voters. They pride themselves on being well-informed _ even the children in high schools ask tough questions when candidates visit _ and they're aware that the nation is watching.
Just remember their differences. You will want to give the candidates your own close look when they reach Florida.
To help with that, the St. Petersburg Times next Sunday plans to begin a two-week series of stories about the candidates and their stands on issues, including the economy, education, health care and foreign aid. We also will tag along with the candidates as they campaign in Florida before the primary.
Comparisons between Florida and New Hampshire
8.7% Unemployment 7.8%
(Jan.) (U.S. 7.1%) (Dec.)
12.9-million Population 1.1-million
(5.2%) (% U.S. pop.) (0.45%)
83% white Race 98% white
25 Electoral votes 4
(U.S. total: 538)
52% Democrat 29%
41% Republican 39%
7% Other 32%
$18,586 Per capita $20,789
state and local
$1,667 Avg. per capita $1,591
No. 31 Rank among No. 36
58,664 sq. mi. Size 9,279 sq. mi.
1,350 mi. Coastline 13 mi.
70 Ave. high 31
0.0 in. Snowfall, 1990 55.8 in.
$26.6-billion Tourism $3-billion
Sources: World Almanac, Congressional Quarterly, U.S. Department of Commerce
Where the candidates stand
Sixty-two people are on the ballot in New Hampshire. Remembering that polls can be wrong and that anything can happen in the next two days, here's how the best-known candidates look.
BILL CLINTON Don't count him out. A lot of voters here say the Arkansas governor has been unfairly attacked and has exhibited grace under pressure. I have yet to find a Democrat who condemns Clinton for staying out of Vietnam, and many admire his eloquent anti-war letter. He's coming back up in the polls.
PAUL TSONGAS Once everybody's second choice and now perhaps their first. Solemn, quiet, his no-nonsense economic message has played well in New Hampshire. One-thousand people attended his 51st birthday party in Nashua on Valentine's Day. He's doing so well that others are finally attacking him.
TOM HARKIN The liberal Iowa senator is desperately trying for third place and has resorted to negative, misleading advertising. His classic Democratic policies echo Roosevelt and his style is that of Truman. Younger voters are often left cold.
BOB KERREY The Nebraska senator and former governor is also on the attack. He has a Medal of Honor and lost a leg in Vietnam, but he overplays it. Otherwise, Kerrey is best known for having a national health-care proposal.
JERRY BROWN The former California governor has been drawing enthusiastic crowds in the last few days. He is limiting contributions to $100 and preaching the evils of big money in politics. Some people still call him a moonbeam.
MARIO CUOMO The people waging his write-in campaign hope for 15 percent of the vote. The New York governor is not a candidate, but neither is he going away.
GEORGE BUSH People in New Hampshire are furious with their president about the economy but are undecided about how best to send him that message. Bush is spending the whole weekend in New Hampshire to try to calm them down.
PAT BUCHANAN The conservative columnist and commentator wants to be the messenger against Bush. He's not expected to win the Republican primary; the suspense is in the percentage. But even his own aides are surprised that he has raised $2.5-million in nine weeks.
to meet for debate
The Democratic candidates meet face to face in a debate at 8 tonight to be televised by CNN, crucial for its timing _ 30 hours after it ends, the voting begins. The debate, which will focus on the economy, is sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
_ Ellen Debenport