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Joe Henderson Columns

Expect flying mud — lots of it

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 09:50 AM

If you watched much build-up to the Iowa caucuses, you saw the candidates spending lots of time at county fairs, churches and meeting halls. They shook lots of hands. They wore blue jeans and open-collar shirts.

How very Norman Rockwellian.

They played the "family values" card over and over again, because that's how they roll in America's heartland. Mitt Romney beat Rick Santorum by eight votes, and now everyone wants to talk about Santorum's momentum.

They really need to talk about Romney's money. That's because the show is about to shift to our backyard, and we play a different game.

"Florida is unlike any of the other early primary and caucus states. It is the most competitive probably of all the 50 states," said Darryl Paulson, a Republican and retired political scientist from the University of South Florida.

Florida's primary is Jan. 31, so it's not too early to put on protective gear, folks. It's about to get personal and ugly. The pundits will talk about New Hampshire and South Carolina for the next couple of weeks like those are important places, but the candidates know better.

"Both parties know their key to victory comes through Florida," Paulson said.

Your television sets are about to be absorbed. Your telephones won't stop ringing with robo-calls and your mailboxes will be stuffed with reasons to vote for this person or that. That stuff is uber expensive, and Romney has the biggest bank account. It will matter, a lot.

Iowa tests how much cotton candy and lemonade a candidate can take before calling for the medics. Florida tests how deftly a candidate can navigate a large, diverse state. Chances are any stance they take will delight and infuriate in equal measure.

To be fair, name-calling still works as long as the word "liberal" is used repeatedly. We learned that when Rick Scott managed to stick Bill McCollum with the "L" label during a bloody Republican primary campaign for governor. Think about that: McCollum, liberal? Seriously?

With that in mind, I'm guessing we're about to see a barrage of attack ads with the words "Romney" and "liberal" and "Obama" linked throughout, along with an image of death panels for grandma. Don't forget that.

It will be tricky, though. This isn't a one-size-fits-all state.

The fact that Scott occupies the governor's mansion and Marco Rubio serves in the U.S. Senate shows how seriously candidates have to take the tea party. This state also needs major help with infrastructure and schools, so that means state and federal tax dollars.

We saw how quickly the governor's approval rating sank after he turned down high-speed-rail dollars, so it's not all about the tea here.

Even though we've established the complexity of the challenge candidates face here, let's keep it simple. Follow the Bill Clinton model: It's the economy, stupid.

Only one message will resonate up and down both coasts, from the Panhandle to Key West: jobs!

Uh, we'd like more of them.

Memo to candidates: Stick with that talking point and bag everything else. You'll do fine.

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