LeMieux: Florida key in GOP primary fight

Published Dec. 15, 2015

Since the time I was a teenager, I have been involved in Republican Party politics.

For better or worse, it has been a party that roughly proceeded along a certain historical arc. The party was a conglomeration of three types of conservatives: fiscal, foreign policy and evangelicals. While these three groups were not in complete accord, the majority they formed worked. It worked to elect Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. It also nominated John McCain and Mitt Romney — not successful in their bids for the White House, but accomplished men who would have made good presidents.

In today's politics, these candidates were moderate to center-right in their views. In 2015, neither Reagan nor George W. Bush would be considered sufficiently conservative for many party activists.

Further, the Republican Party was, for lack of a better term, the "adult" party. It was the party of business and national defense. Its leaders like Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush were senior, stable and experienced. The Democrats were the passion candidates (remember Howard Dean's scream?) and won with youth and charisma (witness Kennedy defeating Nixon and Obama defeating McCain) over seniority and steadiness when the country decided it needed a change.

That is why Donald Trump is a revolutionary candidate for Republicans. Before this election cycle, there has never been a candidate like Trump who has been politically so successful. Granted, Republicans have had outrage candidates before. Pat Buchanan ran a similar over-the-top, bigoted and outsider campaign in 1996. I remember hearing Buchanan at a rally in Iowa that year, preaching from the pulpit of a megachurch that "New York City bankers" were the reason why average Americans could not advance and succeed.

The difference is that Buchanan never led in the polls — let alone by 27 points as Donald Trump does in a poll this week — and in the end he won only four states, with Bob Dole carrying 44.

Trump's success is born of an increasingly disillusioned America so frustrated with broken government that it is willing to follow anyone who promises to blow it up. Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Bernie Sanders all feed off this anger, with Trump's genius for self-promotion and biting, outlandish vitriol bringing him the most success. The hostility of the American people toward their government is justified as the national debt approaches $19 trillion, the economy limps along, and Islamic terrorists kill Americans as our feckless president muddles through.

In truth, Donald Trump is an outgrowth of Obama's failures. Had the president rallied the nation in his Sunday night address after the San Bernardino attack, as an example, Trump may have lost his steam. Obama, the once great orator, gave a bureaucratic recitation of his failed policies and nothing new to inspire the nation's confidence. I have always thought Jimmy Carter to be the worst president and poorest communicator in modern times. Obama's Oval Office address made Carter seem like Churchill in comparison.

As the campaign for the Republican nomination stands, Cruz with his strong support among Christian conservatives looks to be the likely winner in Iowa, with Trump well positioned to win New Hampshire. South Carolina and the "SEC" primary strongly favor Trump and Cruz, whose brands of conservatism should be well received there. One, maybe two other candidates, will make the cut with second- or third-place finishes in the early states. If the field pares down, center-right candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio, former Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may emerge as viable alternatives. This will only happen if the field narrows and the so-called establishment candidates can consolidate the vote. If the field does not narrow, Trump or Cruz will run the table.

In 2000, Florida decided the presidential election. In 2008, McCain clinched the nomination by winning the Florida primary. Florida is well positioned to give one of its favorite sons, Bush or Rubio, the chance to win a major, winner-take-all primary and change the dynamics of the race. Ironically, Bush and his former protégé, Rubio, may split the center-right vote and clinch the race for Cruz or Trump.

Without a Bush or Rubio on the ticket, it is hard to imagine a Republican beating Hillary Clinton in Florida, and as Florida goes, so likely goes the nation.

George LeMieux served as a Republican U.S. senator, governor's chief of staff and deputy attorney general. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.