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Martin Dyckman: Winner-take-all primary could backfire on Florida GOP

The first Florida presidential primary that ever mattered was intended to enhance Sen. Edmund Muskie’s campaign for the Democratic nomination.

It dealt him a staggering defeat instead.

Florida Republican leaders might want to consider that example before structuring next year’s primary as a winner-take-all clincher for former Gov. Jeb Bush or Sen. Marco Rubio.

For the Republicans going into 2016, the field is even more volatile than it was for the Democrats in 1972. No assumption is safe.

The Florida GOP had the Legislature move the 2016 primary from March 1 to March 15, the earliest date on which national party rules allow a winner-take-all primary. The 17 states presently scheduled to award delegates earlier will distribute them mostly by congressional districts, as the Democrats do.

“There are people here who think the primary would be a firewall for Jeb,” says Steven Schale, a leading Democratic strategist. “But if Jeb doesn’t win one of the first few states, it won’t matter on March 15.”

Even if Bush is still competitive by then, his campaign could not conceivably survive an upset in which all his home state’s 96 district delegates went to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, whose state votes before Florida does; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; or some other candidate who appears to be more suitable to the party’s extreme right wing.

A Rubio campaign couldn’t survive it either.

Should both Floridians split essentially the same constituency on March 15, whoever else has a head of steam from the earlier primaries could sweep Florida with much less than a majority of the vote. It could even happen, though less likely, with only one Floridian on the ballot.

Although as many as 20 Republicans are said to be preening themselves in the presidential looking glass – only Cruz has formally declared – the early primaries presumably will cull the field.

The New York Times reported Thursday that leaders of the Christian right hope to organize an anti-Bush campaign around some more trusted social conservative such as Cruz, Huckabee, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana or former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.

There couldn’t be a greater irony than for Bush, who as governor fought to keep Terry Schiavo’s corpse alive and appoint a guardian for the fetus of a disabled rape victim, to be considered insufficiently conservative. But in politics, everything is relative. It shows just how flagrantly radical the right wing has become.

Against that noise, it’s hard to imagine how either Bush or Rubio might win the Florida primary with both of them still in. And don’t forget the carpetbaggers Ben Carson and Huckabee, who are both Florida residents now.

A particular concern for Bush is that it will be 14 years since he last appeared on a Florida ballot, compared to only six for Rubio. There are already 600,000 more Republican voters since 2002 and that total understates the newly arrived among the 3.6-million GOP total.

Former Gov. Reubin Askew encountered the familiarity gap when he sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, 10 years after his last Florida campaign. When he won with only a 45 percent plurality in a meaningless straw vote at a state party convention – former vice president Walter Mondale had set a trap for him there – the media pronounced Mondale the actual winner. Worse, a newspaper poll among actual Democratic voters showed Mondale ahead. Askew’s fund-raising ability all but vanished. “We knew we were close to finished,” an aide said. After running poorly in the Iowa caucuses and last in the New Hampshire primary, Askew dropped out even before the time came for Florida Democrats to vote.

So did Sen. Bob Graham, Askew’s successor as governor, who had to quit the 2004 race in October 2003 for lack of money and media support.

With Bush sure to run and Rubio likely to, Florida next year might finally have the chance to help nominate one of its own for the highest office no Floridian has ever held.

Before making any assumptions on who would win the 2016 primary, the Republicans ought to recall the one that Muskie didn’t win.

State House Speaker Richard A. Pettigrew of Miami and other Democratic leaders worried that a November ticket let by the liberal George McGovern would be bad for down-ballot races. So they established an early primary – March was early in 1972 – which they expected the more moderate Muskie, a senator from Maine, to win.

They didn’t reckon on George Wallace running strongly in Florida or on the Republicans in the Legislature helping him – with encouragement from the Nixon White House – by putting an anti-busing straw vote on the primary ballot.

Wallace swept all but one congressional district. Muskie, his campaign already flagging after winning only a 46 percent plurality in his neighboring state of New Hampshire, was effectively finished off by Florida.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in western North Carolina.

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