Democrats say it's all about bragging rights. Republicans say it's Rudy's last stand. In any case, it all began Monday in Florida as several hundred venues opened up for early voting. By Jan. 29, it is estimated that as many as 2 million Floridians will have cast ballots in the presidential race.
"I have never seen so much early voting," said Broward (Fort Lauderdale) Elections Supervisor Dr. Brenda Snipes. "We may set a record." In Broward, one of the nation's most Democratic counties, large turnout was reported at 16 scattered sites. Similar reports were coming in from all over the state.
The huge turnout is expected to intensify inasmuch as the races in both parties still appear up for grabs.
"There are some who are still waiting to see what happens Jan. 26 in South Carolina. If John Edwards wins there, we see a groundswell of support showing up for him in Florida," says Gloria Pierce, who is organizing an Edwards visibility campaign in Miami-Dade county. "Others, like me, are voting absentee or voting early."
The Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama- John Edwards competition is getting lots of media attention. The Sun-Sentinel's weekend headline "Early Birds Can Start Voting Monday" echoed the lead story in the state's largest newspaper, the Miami Herald, which said in huge type "Florida Still Critical for Democrats." Both newspapers in vote-rich South Florida compared the stands on issues of the three leading Democrats, covering several pages of their Sunday "editorial" sections.
Other state newspapers focused on the same story. In most Sunday editions, the lead story was about the state's early primary and its importance to both parties. "For Rudy Giuliani, it's all about Florida" and "it means basically his entire candidacy," said the Tampa Tribune, questioning if the former New York Mayor's big state strategy will work.
Some news outlets emphasized the record number of absentee ballot requests. Voters can request absentee ballots until Jan. 23.
In Florida, with its large elderly communities, "early bird" is part of Democratic campaigns' strategy to get pre-Jan. 29 support in large numbers. State Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, a leading Clinton ally, said that a campaign was underway to get senior voters to the polls early, using mass transportation and knocking door to door. She emphasized the large number of "over 55" communities in the Sunshine State and their political strength and impact. "Nationally, people care who will win in Florida."
The rush to show Florida's importance apparently was on the minds of many local politicos.
When Florida's legislature moved its primary to Jan. 29, it incurred the wrath of both the Democratic (DNC) and Republican (RNC) executive committees, which punished the state. The DNC took away all Florida delegates and stopped candidates from campaigning in Florida (except to raise cash) and the GOP slashed delegate strength by 50%.
That, however, has not diminished the importance of Florida nor the means the candidates are using to get exposure. A flood of nationally purchased TV commercials, the Internet, and a pack of surrogates speaking for the candidates have targeted audiences from Key West to Pensacola.
"Except for seeing the actual candidates, the race is on," says Democratic activist Henry Woods of Key West, adding that a statewide referendum on a property tax constitutional amendment is also driving the Jan. 29 interest.
"It should help turn out a huge vote," said Woods, a Clinton supporter.
There will be five Democrats on the ballot, including Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Sen. Mike Gravel but they have received little or no media attention. The three Democratic frontrunners -- because they pledged not to campaign in the Sunshine State -- only have surrogates, some self-appointed, speaking in behalf of their candidacies.
A grassroots meeting was held in South Miami Sunday to encourage Edwards supporters to hold rallies, provide home-made signs and wage a publicity effort in behalf of their candidate, describing a CNN poll which showed him as the Democrat most feared by the Republicans. Organizers said such Edwards' rallies would be held throughout January.
Similar "not authorized" committees are believed to be in the making for Clinton and Obama. On Sunday, from 4:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., Obama supporters held their first "honk and wave" celebration in a northern suburb of Miami on busy U.S. Highway One.
The Republican-side ballot is still loaded with Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. John McCain, former Sen. Fred Thompson, Gov. Mitt Romney, ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Rep. Ron Paul duking it out for Florida's vote. Unlike the Democrats, GOP hopefuls can campaign in the state where a flood of TV commercials and events are expected the next two weeks. TV ads for Giuliani are already running.
Giuliani seemed to be making the most of his non-stop visit in Florida, trying to re-energize his campaign with a big state strategy. He said he has a "bold" vision for leading the nation and had been "tested in times of crisis " for his leadership ability. His latest stop was in Coconut Grove aboard a fire truck in a parade and later Sunday boarded a bus for a whirlwind 700-mile swing through Florida.
Not to be discounted is the audience of those who actually vote on Primary Day. They may be tuned in to two nationally televised debates. The debates are set for the candidates on January 23 and January 25 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
All candidates will participate, with the blessing of their respective National Committees.
Political observers believe that because Florida is going to be the first Big State (fourth in population among the 50 States) to vote, its outcome will probably influence some two dozen other states (including California, New York, and New Jersey) that will vote on Super-Super Tuesday, Feb.5.