WASHINGTON — Less than a year from now, South Florida voters could be choosing from among a host of presidential candidates in one of the nation's early primaries.
The Florida Legislature is widely expected to approve a plan to move up the state's primary date to late January or early February, a shift that would give Floridians a crucial part in picking the Republican and Democratic nominees.
That would lead to many visits by the likes of Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama, John McCain, John Edwards and Mitt Romney. It would set off a bombardment of political advertisements. And it would prompt candidates to come to Florida to address voters at mass rallies, not just exploit the state for campaign cash. Campaign activity could be especially intense in South Florida, home to the largest group of voters in the state.
Perhaps most important, it would encourage presidential candidates to reach out early and often to a diverse and sprawling population while addressing Florida's most pressing concerns, such as the future of Medicare, immigration control, foreign trade, relations with Cuba and offshore drilling for gas and oil.
That's not all good, some analysts say.
If California, New Jersey and Illinois join Florida and move up their contests soon after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary — as they are preparing to do — it would create something tantamount to a national primary that would discourage little-known candidates, diminish the importance of small encounters with voters and reward those who can raise enough money to crisscross the country and pay for massive advertising campaigns.
"The consequences are terrible for the democratic process," said Robert Watson, associate professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. "But it would be good for Florida."
"The politicians would be especially attuned to the needs of the state. When it comes to protecting Florida citrus, natural disaster mitigation, sensitive issues like drilling for oil or environment concerns like protecting the Keys and marine sanctuaries — these could be in play."
An early Florida primary, political observers predict, would help well-funded candidates already known in the state, such as Giuliani, a Republican former mayor of New York, and Sen. Clinton, the early favorite among Democrats.
Candidates who visit the state tend to stress their support for Israel's security and for efforts to promote democracy in Cuba to appeal to large numbers of Jewish and Cuban-American voters, said George Gonzalez, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami.
"Conservatives are likely to play up foreign policy issues and talk a lot about Cuba," he said. "Drilling for oil and oil dependence becomes more prominent, along with anything that affects a large sprawling Sunbelt state with massive urban zones."
For decades, people from Florida and other major states have complained that little Iowa and New Hampshire — relatively homogenous rural states with few urban pressures — shape the field of presidential candidates. By the time Florida primary voters troop to the polls in March, the nominees essentially are determined.
That's why Florida legislators are determined to set an earlier date when the Legislature meets in March. A state House committee paved the way last week by voting unanimously to hold the Florida Primary either seven days after the New Hampshire Primary or on Feb. 5, whichever comes first.
Florida would still follow Iowa and New Hampshire but be in position to crown a winner. South Floridians would get to see the candidates, or at least their advertisements, more often, but probably not in the kind of revealing and intimate settings found at get-togethers in Iowa.
"When candidates go to Florida or New Jersey, they don't get to sit on hay bales and kiss baby pigs," said Steffen Schmidt, who hosts a "Doctor Politics" radio call-in show in Iowa. "In major states what you get are ads saying, 'I'm so great and this other guy is a slime-ball."'
A front-loaded primary campaign with several large states voting around the same time would make it more difficult for long-shot and under-funded candidates to gather support one voter at a time — a form of "retail politics" that helped Jimmy Carter win the presidency in 1976.
The earliest states — which next year will include Nevada and South Carolina — would still determine front-running candidates.
"The net result is that Florida, if it chooses to have its primary on Feb. 5, would either confirm the momentum of the leading candidates or slow that momentum down," said Mitchell, Berger, a major Democratic fund-raiser.
Florida party people are rubbing their hands in anticipation.
"That would get everybody down here for a real chunk of time and create a national buzz," said Sid Dinerstein, Republican chairman in Palm Beach County. "And we can do it without a foot of snow on the ground. You would have hundreds of people at every stop instead of little coffee klatches.
"Iowa and New Hampshire? Give me a break. I don't think those small states wind up being very representative. We have almost as many people here in Palm Beach County. Winning a state like Florida early on would send a big message."