MIAMI — Military vets in the Panhandle. The most influential Hispanic bloc in the nation. Transplanted New Yorkers living near evangelical Christians. Midwestern retirees on the west coast. And a history of troubled elections.
The profile of Florida reads like a mini-map of the United States, a mosaic of races and ethnicities, ages and incomes. It's a glitzy gateway to Latin America and a next-door neighbor to Alabama. Its cities boast soaring skyscrapers while tiny nearby towns are dotted with shotgun shacks and unpaved roads.
This is the backdrop for the biggest 2008 presidential primary yet in the nation, on Jan. 29, a vote that will provide the first real test of how a candidate will play on the national stage.
"It's America in miniature,'' said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, who's been polling in the state since 1984. "It's maybe a little more rightward tilt than the U.S., but it's probably the closest thing to a complete profile of the country than any other state that has voted up till now.''
A high-growth state since the invention of air conditioning, Florida's appeal may at long last be cooling. Census figures show that the state — still the fourth-largest in population — slid in 2007 from the fourth fastest-growing state in the country to the 19th.
Its once-solid economy, fueled in large part by tourist dollars, is now among the most threatened in the nation. It's been hit hard by a struggling housing market: Brand-new condo units in towers along Miami's glitzy skyline have been sold at foreclosure auctions. State coffers have been drained by a slump in sales tax collections, which make up the bulk of tax dollars in a state long hostile to an income tax.
"There's worry about next year and the year after that; there's anxiety about what's going to happen,'' said House Speaker Marco Rubio, the first Cuban-American elected to the statewide post amid a flourish of pride in a community that's reshaped the state.
"Florida built its economy on taxing the next person to get here,'' Rubio said.
"That was great when there was a never-ending stream. Now we've got people working just as hard but not getting ahead.''
The anxiety is especially acute in a state that appeared to escape most of the financial squeeze earlier this decade that left other states slashing budgets and laying off teachers and firefighters. This year, the presidential candidates will share the ballot with a proposal to cut property tax rates — a measure opposed by many cities and school departments.
The political sands are shifting as well.
The popular, yet staunchly partisan Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who was prevented by term limits from seeking a third term, was replaced by the affable Republican Charlie Crist. And the post Jeb-Bush Florida may be a more moderate place.
In the GOP primary, Crist easily dispatched former chief financial officer Tom Gallagher, who ran as a hard-line conservative.
Once in office, Crist stunned environmentalists — and many in his party — by vowing to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions, blocking plans to strip Florida's manatee of its endangered species status and ordering solar panels installed on the roof at the governor's mansion in Tallahassee.
He also instructed the state Republican Party to pull its financial support for a constitutional amendment to ban marriage by gay couples.
Once-marginalized Florida Democrats — after years of seeing little more than "the abyss,'' as Democratic Minority Leader Dan Gelber put it after President Bush easily won the state in 2004 — rebounded in 2006.
The party took back a post on the Florida Cabinet, picked up six seats in the state House and two in Congress.
"Floridians are not so apt to stay on one ideological bandwagon,'' Gelber said of the Democratic gains. "There's fidelity, but at some point voters are saying, 'You've been in charge for a while — let's see if someone else can do better.'''
Change, 2000 to 2006: plus 13.2 percent
White: 80.2 percent
Black: 15.8 percent
Asian: 2.2 percent
American Indian: 0.4 percent
Hispanic: 20.2 percent
Foreign born: 16.7 percent
Median household income: $40,900
Change 2000 to 2006: plus 6.4 percent
White: 80.2 percent
Black: 12.8 percent
Asian: 4.3 percent
American Indian: 1 percent
Hispanic: 14.4 percent
Foreign born: 11.1 percent
Median household income: $44,334
PAST PRESIDENTIAL WINNERS OF THE STATE
2004: Bush, 52 percent
2000: Bush, 49 percent
1996: Clinton, 48 percent
1992: Bush, 41 percent
1988: Bush, 61 percent
1984: Reagan, 65 percent
1980: Reagan, 56 percent
No party affiliation: 1,911,510
Gov. Charlie Crist, R
Sen. Bill Nelson, D
Sen. Mel Martinez, R
U.S. House members: 16 Republicans, 9 Democrats