Florida's presidential primary March 11 is shaping up as perhaps the best test yet of how the two leading Republican presidential candidates -- Ronald Reagan and George Bush -- are likely to do nationally.
The reason: The voting in this state will be less of a regional contest than the previous match-ups in the Midwest and New England. In fact, Florida is not strictly a Southern state. So many Yankees have migrated here that the state now has three distinctive regional dialects: midland (as heard in the speech of Pennsylvanians, Ohioans, and people from the Great Plains), highlands Southern (from Virginia across to eastern New Mexico), and coastal Southern.
Florida, says Tim Baer, Reagan state field director, has "a big, broad, diverse cross section of Republican sentiment around the country."
Both the Reagan and Bush camps are going all-out to win here, and both have strong organizations.
Most predicters foresee a close race between Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush. Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, former Texas Gov. John B. Connally, and Rep. Philip M. Crane of Illinois are, by all accounts, well behind.
Reagan campaign workers say they sense a "rejuvenation" among their candidate's supporters in Florida as a result of his win in the New Hampshire primary last week. But Bush supporters took New Hampshire results as a signal to dig in and work harder, too.
It is suggested that a close outcome here between Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush could further encourage former President Gerald Ford to become a candidate. But , claims Lou Treadway, Republican chairman for Orange County (which includes Orlando), many Republicans see little difference between Mr. Bush and Mr. Ford. So if Mr. Bush falters as a candidate, this does not mean that as-yet-uncommitted voters would automatically turn to the former president.
Although Mr. Bush led in statewide support here before the New Hampshire primary, the race today is a "dead-even heat," says Orlando Sentinel writer John Haile, whose newspaper conducts a respected political poll. Supporters of both candidates agree.
Since New Hampshire, there appears to have been some erosion of Mr. Bush's support, not so much in favor of Mr. Reagan as toward an uncommitted position. Interest in Rep. John B. Anderson of Illinois also has increased somewhat, state GOP officials say.
One Bush campaign worker in Tallahassee confirms that the number of uncommitted voters in her area has risen since the New Hampshire primary. But she adds that voters she has canvassed still give her candidate a small lead. A Reagan campaigner in the same city also detects a large uncommitted bloc but says his canvassing puts Mr. Reagan well ahead.
In Deltona, a fast-growing community in central Florida, Peg and Leonard Berkley, a retired couple from Connecticut, say they were leaning toward Mr. Bush before the New Hampshire results. Now, says Mrs. Berkley, she has "lost interest" in Mr. Bush and is "leaning a little to Reagan." Leonard Berkley found Mr. Bush "bland" in New Hampshire and now says "he may not have enough on the ball."
But two other central Florida voters who favored Mr. Bush before New Hampshire said in follow-up calls by this newspaper that they are sticking by him.
With his support less solid than Mr. Reagan's -- and more apt to be swayed by the results of another state's primary -- Mr. Bush has to avoid snafus. But he has already angered some people in the Miami area by his lack of support for a constitutional amendment against abortion (although his position papers do put him against abortion in principle) and by vulgar words attributed to him in a recent interview there on the subject.
On the other hand, support for Mr. Bush among some Democratic businessmen is emerging here in Daytona Beach, among other places. This could influence Republicans looking for someone who could gain Democratic support to win in November.
But unlike the Alabama and Georgia primaries (also March 11), Floridians cannot cross over to vote for a candidate of another party, and independents cannot vote.