Opinion

Commentary: Just in time for the holidays, GOP laff-fest hits Florida

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. MCT

When Florida’s Republican 2012 presidential primary was moved up to Jan. 31, the reaction was mixed.

Some voters were glad to getting past it sooner than later. Others were dismayed that the holiday season would be polluted by vicious campaign commercials and distracting barnstorm visits from candidates.

Now it’s clear that many of us underestimated the redemptive entertainment value of the GOP race. Floridians are in need of a good laugh, and this particular ensemble will deliver plenty of those.

Rick Perry, the Texas governor, spent last week denying that he was drunk or high when he gave a speech punctuated by odd giggles and twitches in New Hampshire.

The video has become a YouTube sensation, and it’s hilarious stuff — at least until you consider that this goober might someday have his finger on the button that controls America’s nuclear arsenal.

In the governor’s defense, his campaign staff said that Perry was simply being “passionate” in front of the New Hampshire crowd.

Jerry Garcia liked to perform in a passionate state, too. Before he went onstage with the Grateful Dead, he’d go straight to his dressing room and drop some heavy passion.

After that weird speech, Perry’s strategic mistake was claiming to be straight when it happened. He should have just said, “Yeah, OK, I had a few beers.” Or even, “Shoot, I must’ve accidentally popped a Xanax instead of my Lipitor.”

Then people would have thought: Oh, that explains it.

But the possibility that he was totally sober isn’t quite as funny. In fact, it’s semi-terrifying.

This isn’t the sergeant-at-arms of your local Kiwanis Club, who’s nervous about speaking in public. This is a career politician who wants to be the freaking commander-in-chief of the United States.

With Perry polling only slightly ahead of Dr. Conrad Murray, the New Hampshire debacle should have sunk his hopes for the White House. No way. The Texan will be rolling full steam into Florida, and for that we have Herman Cain to thank.

Last week it was revealed that the pizza king-turned-frontrunner had been twice formally named in sexual-harassment complaints when he was head of the National Restaurant Association. (There was a time in this great nation’s history when a background in franchise-food services wasn’t considered a springboard to the U.S. presidency, but this is a new day.)

Cain denied the damaging charges and accused his rival Perry of leaking the information to the press. Things can only get uglier between now and January, which means Floridians can look forward to a blaring, venomous, low-class campaign.

The trick is to not to get depressed, but rather to enjoy the show for what it is.

Michele Bachmann will be here, and God only knows what will come out of her mouth. Don’t be surprised if she confuses the Seminole tribe with the Apaches.

And then there’s under-sedated Rick Santorum, moldy Newt Gingrich, invisible Jon Huntsman and the dependably amusing Ron Paul, who hovers like a benign but addled Yoda on the fringe of every debate.

The race is Mitt Romney’s to win. All he has to do is appear halfway sane, which should be easy considering the competition.

Romney’s biggest hurdle will be trying to explain his pandemic flip-flopping, and that might prove impossible. His best shot at victory is to stick with two basic talking points:

1. Obama’s a terrible president.

2. I’ll be a terrific president.

As Cain and Perry stumble, a Romney win is looking like a done deal. However, Florida is a land of unpleasant surprises, where frontrunners can crash and burn.

Ask Gary Hart, whose bid for the Democratic nomination began unraveling with his antics aboard a Miami yacht called Monkey Business in 1987. Less titillating but equally final was the collapse of Rudy Giuliani during the last presidential campaign.

The former New York mayor staked everything on winning Florida, and he virtually camped out here for weeks. But the more stump speeches he gave and the more hands he shook, the lower he dropped in the polls. To know Rudy was to lose interest.

As a result, John McCain captured the state, and ultimately the Republican nomination.

Romney is less prickly than Giuliani and he definitely has better hair, no small advantage in national politics. His advisers will coach him to stand tall, stay cool and avoid getting dragged into the mud pit with Cain, Perry and the others.

However, the mud pit is where all the fun happens. That’s why so many TV viewers are watching the GOP debates, waiting for somebody to melt down or fly into orbit.

People say they want civility in politics but that’s a pipe dream. The presidential campaign is way too long and silly.

Being connoisseurs of the absurd, Floridians should welcome the candidates as fountains of comic relief. For voters here, the road to the primary will be difficult to endure without a sense of humor, or 50 milligrams of “passion.”

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