Here's Johnny

Posted: May 19, 2006 12:05 AM

There are hidden potentials arising from two seemingly unconnected political events in the making. Both could greatly impact the 2008 presidential race.

 First, there remains a general consensus among those in the know that Florida, the state that has become the nation's new microcosm of national political sentiments, will attempt to move its 2008 presidential preference primary up to one week after the contest in New Hampshire.

 It's being pushed by the next state Speaker of the House in Florida, a dynamic young leader named Marco Rubio. This rising star is generally seen as being in good favor with the ever-popular Gov. Jeb Bush. The governor will finish his second and final term in January.

 Democrats are also reportedly interested in the earlier primary, particularly those who support the nomination of Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. She polls well among the diverse Democratic constituency in Florida.

 Such a move will mean that Republican candidates hoping to win their party's nomination in '08 will first have to deal with conservative elements of the often quirky Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.

 But they also will need to align their policy views with those of the more moderate GOP voters in Florida, as displayed in past statewide elections. That could open or close doors to various candidates. It also might give rise to new political stars whose names have hardly been mentioned yet.

 This is particularly the case given the recent rejection in the U.S. Senate of an amendment by Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia to the proposed immigration bill. The amendment would have required that before any provisional guest-worker program -- also deemed "pure amnesty" -- can be implemented for illegal immigrants already in the country, there would have to be a complete securing of the nation's borders.

 Isakson, who served six years in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2004, is a moderate conservative who takes a pragmatic approach to most issues. Since his early days in the Georgia Legislature, he's been tagged as an unassuming but popular lawmaker with a businessman's approach to politics that usually pushes him to the top of whatever organization he's in.

 Isakson has shown no interest in a White House run. Still, don't be too shocked to hear his name bantered about as an early vice-presidential possibility.

 His stand on the immigration issue polls well; it has conservative icons, such as radio's Rush Limbaugh, extolling his virtues, even though Limbaugh was unsure how to pronounce "Isakson" (EYE-zik-son).

 At the same time, another possible vice-presidential candidate might be Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He is a former hard-line conservative who now occasionally displays moderate tendencies. At the same time, he is unpredictable and known more and more among his colleagues as a maverick. Graham joined fewer than 20 other Republican colleagues in the Senate in voting against the Isakson immigration proposal.

 Still in all, Graham is a personable and articulate senator. His name has been kicked around as a potential last-minute presidential contender, or as a possible vice-presidential choice by the ultimate presidential nominee.

 Now back to the overall 2008 scenario and the Florida primary. An early Florida presidential primary, with no other rival state primaries the same day, would likely be for all the marbles.

 Of the many potential Republican presidential candidates, the first glance would suggest that Sen. John McCain of Arizona would be the early favorite. A recent InsiderAdvantage poll in Florida shows McCain leading among likely GOP contenders.

 But with Florida as the potential early decider of the nominating process, all candidates will be looking for help from those who know the South. (Yes, there remains a significant "Southern" twist to the political culture of Florida's GOP voters, especially in north Florida.)

 Given that, a dark horse like the pragmatic and businesslike Johnny Isakson could be called upon to provide Deep South flavor to a McCain candidacy.

 For prospective candidates hoping to overcome their ultraconservative images, a running mate like Graham, with his sometimes downright liberal positions, might attract the critical moderate and independent swing votes in Florida.

 And should Florida fail to move its primary up, South Carolina may well be a state holding major sway, as it did in 2000. Graham is well-liked in his home state.

 Let's not get confused here. No presidential aspirant is likely to name a vice-presidential running mate prior to first securing the nomination. And with the popular favorite son Gov. Jeb Bush out of office by then, there's always the potential for him to quest for the White House himself.

 Regardless, the winks and nods that go on between potential political friends and foes suggest that the politics of possible running mates can be a powerful ingredient in the mix of primaries.

 It's clear the Republicans are looking for leaders who will propose bold measures, and yet appear pragmatic in their approach. Fresh new names, such as Isakson and Graham, will undoubtedly bubble up as the presidential candidates come to realize that these kinds of potential number-twos may be the key to GOP victory or defeat in 2008.

 And a fresh primary schedule, with Florida as an early Holy Grail, could shake up the Republicans enough to give the public new hope in a party that, of late, has looked lost.