Matt Towery

It has been my contention for the past decade that when it comes to politics, as Florida goes, so goes the nation.

Think about the 2008 presidential election. First, following the CNN-YouTube debate, the last major Republican debate to be held before the Iowa caucus, our firm polled Floridians for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. We asked respondents who won the debate. A then-unknown candidate was the clear winner, and the boost he received in Florida gave Mike Huckabee a win in Iowa just over a month later.

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The tipping point in the Republican presidential contest was Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's endorsement of John McCain in that state's GOP primary. Soon afterward, McCain won an upset victory in New Hampshire. It propelled him to the nomination.

Then in November 2008, a large, disenchanted contingent of independent voters, who in prior years had tilted Republican, switched sides and put Florida in the Barack Obama column.

This past year our polling firm, InsiderAdvantage, was named one of the three most accurate national pollsters for that 2008 race. That distinction came to us from the polling guru that Time magazine named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world. So now the heat is on us to get 2012 right, as well.

That's why I'm focused on an apparently obscure state Senate special election race in a region dominated by greater Jacksonville. By coincidence, this nationally syndicated column is based out of that city's newspaper, the Florida Times-Union. The election is to replace a distinguished senator who died a few weeks back.

How could this comparatively small election be so important? Because it summarizes every aspect of what will become a national battle for the future direction of the Republican Party.

Let me set the stage. No Democrats are in the race, so the winner of the Sept. 15 Republican primary will become senator. Among the major GOP candidates running is a longtime party establishment leader, former state speaker of the House John Thrasher. He enjoys the support of many elected officials, as well as that of former Gov. Jeb Bush. Thrasher was a tight ally of Bush, and of Bush's family and the Bush political network.

Matt Towery

Matt Towery is a pollster, attorney, businessman and former elected official. He served as campaign strategist for Congressional, Senate, and gubernatorial campaigns. His latest book is Newsvesting: Use News and Opinion to Grow Your Personal Wealth. Follow him on Twitter @MattTowery