Florida will take center stage in the presidential race this month, starting with Monday's GOP candidates' debate in Tampa and leading up to the Presidency 5 straw poll, an event expected to identify clearly the leaders and challengers in the race.
Between now and then, most of the leading GOP candidates will be raising money and making public appearances in major Florida media markets, and courting the state Republican convention delegates who will vote in the Presidency 5 poll.
The straw poll is receiving less national attention this year than in years past, but it's likely to remain the nation's best early predictor of the primary horse race.
"I think whoever wins it will be the next president," Gov. Rick Scott said in an interview Friday.
Tonight's debate is expected to continue the battle between the two leaders in the race, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney.
It's also likely to focus heavily on the issue Romney campaign aides have identified as their best point of attack against Perry, Social Security.
The Social Security battle is likely to be fought out in Florida, the nation's must-win swing state for a Republican presidential candidate, and the state with the nation's second-highest number of 65-plus residents.
Perry has called Social Security a "Ponzi scheme," and called it unconstitutional in his book; Romney responds that a candidate who appears to favor abolition of Social Security can't win the presidency.
Michele Bachmann, dropping in the polls after a surge from her Iowa straw poll win in August, will seek to regain some attention and momentum.
Jon Huntsman, still fighting to get traction, will work to move his candidacy off the starting blocks.
Bachmann and Romney have said they won't compete in the Presidency 5 straw poll, but it's unclear what that means. Both will attend the Presidency 5 state party convention in Orlando Sept. 22-24 where the straw poll will take place, and their names will be on the ballot, regardless whether they say they're competing.
Huntsman, meanwhile, seemed to shift the focus of his campaign somewhat away from Florida last week and toward the nation's first primary state, New Hampshire.
He announced he's moving some staff from Florida, where he previously established his national headquarters in Orlando, to New Hampshire. A statement from Huntsman's campaign manager, Matt David, referred to the "diminished importance" of the straw poll, without explaining what that meant.
But on the same day, Perry announced he'll campaign actively in the straw poll, and set up a web site to encourage delegates who will vote in the poll to pledge support.
Florida Republican Party spokesman Brian Hughes, in response, said it "redefined irony [that] on the day a campaign that polls near last place calls Presidency 5 diminished, the campaign polling in first place announces it will vigorously compete."
He said Huntsman's action "defies reason."
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The Florida straw poll is more significant than most party straw polls because it's a true test of the candidates' popularity and organizing ability, not just a fundraising gimmick.
Unlike straw polls including Iowa's, campaigns can't bus in supporters or buy them voting tickets.
Only the 3,500 delegates to the Presidency 5 convention may vote. They were chosen this summer in a process set up to create a representative cross-section of the Florida party and its leadership.
"Straw polls are often downplayed and for good reason," but "the Florida straw poll is different, because of how it's conducted and because Florida is a more representative state, less prone to ideological extremism, said retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson.
Among the top three finishers in Iowa – Bachmann, Ron Paul and Tim Pawlenty -- Pawlenty has dropped out and Bachmann and Paul are "struggling," he said.
In all three previous election cycles when the poll has been held, Paulson noted, the winner has gone on to win not only the Florida primary, but also the party's nomination.
But veteran political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia said despite the Florida straw poll's comparative legitimacy, "the results in Ames may have dampened the coverage of other straw polls for this year. Iowa has soured the prospect for Florida. Maybe it isn't fair, but what's fair about politics?"
The late-building Republican field, which left little time for the candidates to organize and compete in Presidency 5, may have diminished its national importance, said prominent Fort Lauderdale GOP activist Justin Sayfie.
But he said it will still "help define the conventional wisdom" about who's winning the race and who's the top challenger.
"The biggest impact it's going to have is the momentum and perception advantage it will give the winner and top finishers with respect to winning the Florida primary," he said.
Sayfie, who initially backed Pawlenty but is now uncommitted, said he thinks most Republican donors and activists are still uncommitted: "When I ask who's got the most grass-roots support right now, the answer I pretty consistently get is none of them."
A Presidency 5 win will be a major coup in swaying those activists and donors, he said.
Republicans say the events surrounding the straw poll – a Conservative Political Action Conference, a Fox News debate and a Florida Faith and Freedom Coalition rally – will draw national attention to the event.
But regardless of their opinions about the importance of the straw poll, candidates are swarming Florida this month.
Romney and Bachmann are also reportedly planning campaign appearances in Florida before Presidency 5, but details weren't available.