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Republican presidential contenders prepare to face off in Florida debate

Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, gestures as Texas Gov. Rick Perry watches during a Republican debate Monday, Sept. 12, 2011, in Tampa, Fla. Mike Carlson

As the Republican presidential nomination race makes a three-day stop in Florida on Thursday, GOP candidates Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and the seven other contenders (including Gary Johnson as a last minute addition) will meet in Orlando for a debate sponsored by Fox News and Google - where Perry and Romney will have another chance to face off over Social Security and other hot-button issues.

The debate comes on the heels of a new Quinnipiac Poll showing Perry maintaining his edge over Romney 28 to 22 percent support - a lead that widened slightly, with Perry's 46 percent over Romney's 38, when measured as a two-man race. Among Tea Party respondents, Perry led Romney by 20 points, with 55 percent support to Romney's 35.

Tonight, Perry, Romney and the seven other contenders - including Gary Johnson as a last minute addition - will meet in Orlando for a debate sponsored by Fox News and Google. Tomorrow, the candidates will all address CPAC Florida, a conference sponsored by the American Conservative Union. And then on Saturday, the Florida Republican Party will hold its presidential straw poll.

It's no coincidence that the candidates are lavishing attention on Florida. Yesterday, Mitt Romney held a town hall in Miami and Rick Perry attended two fundraisers in the state. Their calculation? Florida will not only be a battleground in the general election, but it could be decisive in the nomination fight as well.

In 2008, John McCain dealt Romney a crippling blow in the Florida primary by taking 36 percent of the vote to Romney's 31 percent. Rudy Giuliani was a distant third and dropped out the next day. With Florida officials lobbying to move their primary date up to after South Carolina's, the Sunshine State could again be a Republican king - or queen - maker.

But the Florida political landscape has changed since 2008. At the time of the '08 primary, the country was still months away from the financial crisis. Today, Florida's 10.7 percent unemployment rate is well above the national average of 9.1 percent. And according to RealtyTrac, which tracks foreclosures nationwide, last month Florida was second only to California in the number of foreclosure filings.

At left, Caroline Horn previews what to expect during the debate.

"The economy is the big story," says University of South Florida Professor Susan McManus. "Florida is so used to rebounding very quickly after a recession and it just hasn't bounced back."

In addition, with leaders in Washington debating how to shrink the nation's deficit, the future of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare has the potential to be a major flashpoint in a state with a high number of retirees. In fact, in the 2008 Republican primary, 44 percent of voters were 60 or older.

On Wednesday, Perry and Romney continued to trade barbs over Social Security.

At a Miami town hall, Romney took aim at Perry's assertion in his 2010 book "Fed Up!" that Social Security would be better managed by the states.

"In my opinion, this does not work in any way, shape or form," Romney said.

Outside of a Ft. Lauderdale fundraiser, Perry said Social Security for retirees and those about to retire wasn't going anywhere. And he fired back at Romney, saying that for "someone standing on the Republican stage who wants to be the nominee for the presidency to imply that the age-old Democrat trick that we're going to go scare our seniors -- that's pretty irresponsible."

The attacks could resonate not only with current retirees, but with baby boomers that are just nearing retirement.

"They were counting on that," University of South Florida's McManus says of the entitlement program. "Most of them didn't save enough. And now there's a lot of nervousness, particularly when you add to that the Medicare funding issues."

Social Security will almost certainly come up in tonight's debate, as well as other issues important to key Florida constituencies. Florida's large Hispanic community - the 2010 Census puts the figure at 22.5 percent - will likely want to hear what the candidates have to say about immigration. And with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so much in the news this week, expect the moderators to ask the Republican rivals for their views on that subject. Florida has one of the largest American Jewish populations in the country, with many living in key swing districts.

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