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Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) pose for a photos before participating in a Fox News, Wall Street Journal sponsored debate at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center on January 16, 2012 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Voters in South Carolina will head to the polls on January 21 to vote in the Republican primary election to pick their choice for U.S. presidential candidate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
This year's GOP primary face-off in Florida won't be the end of the road for the candidates regardless of the outcome, but it could be a good indicator of who will go on to become the party's nominee.
The winner of Florida's Republican primary has gone on to be the party's nominee in eight of the past 10 primaries, with incumbent presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush running for reelection unopposed.
With such an early spot for Florida in the 2012 primary lineup, the Sunshine State has become a key battleground for the GOP.
"In the past, we always picked the winner but we picked the winner because we already knew who was gonna win," said Charles Zelden, professor of political science at Nova Southeastern University. "By the time we had the Florida primary we knew who the winner was already. At the very least we were voting for the guy with momentum."
It wasn't until 1972 that Florida earned its early spot on the primary schedule, falling just behind New Hampshire. That year, President Richard Nixon was challenged by Rep. Pete McCloskey, from California, and Rep. John Ashbrook from Ohio.
Nixon easily won the March 14 primary, with 87 percent to Ashbrook's 9 percent and McCloskey's 4 percent. A rout by Nixon in every other state's primaries set up his nomination at the 1972 Republican National Convention held in Miami, and his reelection to president.
The next Florida GOP primary, in 1976 would be much closer. Though Gerald Ford was the incumbent president, he faced a stiff challenge by Ronald Reagan, who had ended his run as governor of California in January 1975.
After close wins by Ford in Iowa and New Hampshire, he handily beat Reagan in Massachusetts and Vermont on primaries held the same day in March.
Any momentum by Ford was nearly halted in Florida on the March 9 primary, where he topped Reagan 53-47 percent. Ford would narrowly win the party's nomination but lose to Jimmy Carter in the presidential race.
Reagan wouldn't have to wait long to win Florida. In the 1980 GOP primary, held the same day as Georgia and Alabama, Reagan won 56 percent to George H.W. Bush's 30 percent.
After winning the GOP nomination, Reagan selected Bush as his running mate and easily beat Carter, then won again in 1984.
In 1988, it was Bush taking on Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, but in the Sunshine State, primary voters wouldn't get their say until 13 other states had cast their votes.
Though Dole had scored victories in his home state and the Iowa caucus, by the time the Florida primary came, Bush was ready to make his move.
Florida's March 8 primary came the same day as 16 other states, and Bush would win all but one. He carried Florida with 62 percent to Dole's 21 percent, while televangelist Pat Robertson pulled in 11 percent.
Bush would win his party's election and defeat Michael Dukakis in the presidential election.
Four years later, Bush would face a serious challenge from former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan in the Florida primary. Bush was able to win Florida, 68-32 percent, as well as the party nomination, but lost the general election to Bill Clinton.
In 1996's primary, it's was Dole's turn to take the Sunshine State. Dole was able to fend off challenges from Buchanan and publisher Steve Forbes, taking 57 percent to Forbes' 20 percent and Buchanan's 18 percent. Though he won his party's nomination, Dole was defeated by Clinton, who won Florida's 25 electoral votes in the general election.
Although Florida's role in the 2000 election is already infamous, the Sunshine State's primary that year was fairly uneventful. George W. Bush took home 74 percent, easily beating Arizona Sen. John McCain, who took 20 percent, and former diplomat Alan Keyes, who grabbed 5 percent.
Recounts, hanging chads and the Supreme Court couldn't keep Bush from winning Florida and thus the general election over Vice President Al Gore. Four years later, Bush would be unopposed as the GOP nominee and take a more decisive victory over Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry for reelection.
In 2008, for the first time in years, the Florida primary was a hotly contested affair, with McCain, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee all with a legitimate shot.
McCain emerged victorious, with 36 percent to Romney's 31 percent and Giuliani's 15 percent. In the general election, McCain lost both Florida and the country to Barack Obama.
The 2012 Florida primary features Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. With Romney winning the New Hampshire primary, Gingrich taking South Carolina, and Santorum winning the Iowa caucus, Florida figures to be huge for the victor.
"Florida is the first big test," Zelden said. "We are more like the nation as a whole, it's wholesale politics and national politics is wholesale politics.
"The winner of Florida walks into the next few primaries with momentum."