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Disney's employees protest against Florida's Don't Say Gay bill, in Glendale, Calif., on March 22.RINGO CHIU/Reuters

Florida, Pied Piper of politics.

Once it was a matter of conviction that the American future came first in California. It’s where hippies first surfaced, where the word “like” first appeared as a linguistic filler, where the first motion-picture theatre opened, where the first laser and the first skateboard were used, even where the first right-turn-on-red law was passed.

But look out, California. Here comes Florida to compete as the American trendsetter, at least in politics.

It is in Florida that the country’s political deadlock became visible: The cadre of lawyers who descended on this state to battle over the outcome of the overtime 2000 election signalled the emergence of a new era of extreme acrimony. It is here that the dramatic alteration in the Republican Party is most visible: The replacement in the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee of the mainstream Jeb Bush with the populist Ron DeSantis is symbolic of a larger movement that has recast American politics.

It is here that the rebellion against mask mandates was most virulent; the death rate from COVID-19 is in the middle of the state rankings and 47 states have lost more school days. It is here that the first “Stand Your Ground” law was passed granting citizens immunity from prosecution if they use deadly force “to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm;” since then, 37 states have followed Florida’s lead. It is here that “Don’t Say Gay” legislation to prevent schools from teaching about gender identity or sexual orientation from Kindergarten to Grade 3 got its start; now a dozen other states are considering such restrictions.

And it is here that Donald J. Trump has moved in his exile from Washington and may be planning for his White House return in the 2024 presidential election.

“Florida is the gift that keeps on giving,” Susan MacManus, an emerita University of South Florida political scientist, said in an interview. “This is the state that best represents the country as a whole as measured by race, generation and county of origin. We are an immigrant magnet – we attract people from other parts of the country as well as abroad. We are the leading indicator of things good – and the leading indictor of things bad.”

Right now the pirouette of politics set by Florida is on the dance card of states across the country. This month, Alabama has taken up legislation resembling the “Don’t Say Gay” measure signed into law by Mr. DeSantis, adding a provision making it a felony for physicians to aid young people under 19 to proceed with gender transition.

“Those policies are highly popular,” said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist. “They poll well. A big slice of Democrats even are supporting it. That’s why DeSantis thinks he has a winning policy. Florida is the leading the country on these kinds of bills.”

Mr. DeSantis is a likely presidential candidate – one of the few Republicans who have signalled a willingness to run in a GOP primary even if Mr. Trump attempts a White House comeback. That has produced something of a political chill in the Sunshine State, particularly since Mr. Trump has claimed credit for the Governor’s victory in a difficult race four years ago.

“Ron was at 3 per cent, and the day I endorsed him, he won the race,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with The Washington Post this month, adding, “As soon as I endorsed him, the race was over.” Mr. DeSantis, while respectful of the former president, doesn’t see it precisely that way.

Politics wasn’t always a preoccupation in this state of hurricanes and hustlers, of astronauts, alligators and the aging.

Since the days of Juan Ponce de Leon, people have come here to escape reality; the Spanish explorer and conquistador landed here in 1513, hoping to discover a fountain of youth. Later visitors found the antidote to aging in the state’s sunshine; there are on average 101 days of full sun here, a marked contrast with New York’s 63 (and Toronto’s 44).

Throughout the past century, the state’s conversation has been dominated by real estate. Fortunes were made and lost in the 1920s, mostly lost after the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, and again after the Great Recession of 2008, and now have climbed into the stratosphere. The average price of a home sold in Palm Beach County is about the same as the average home sale price in Toronto.

But since the turn of the century it has been politics, politics, politics in the nation’s third largest state.

The issue of immigration is full of tension here. One in five Floridians were born in another country; the state took in the equivalent of Saskatoon’s population in a wave of foreign immigration in the past two years. Like Virginia, where Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin was swept into office last year on the issue of parental control of schools, education has emerged as an important and divisive issue. “Parents’ rights have been increasingly under assault around the nation,” Mr. DeSantis said as he signed a parental bill of rights measure late last month, “but in Florida we stand up for the rights of parents and the fundamental role they play in the education of their children.”

The parental bill of rights won plaudits in national conservative circles. “For years, the socialist democrats have been pushing hard to indoctrinate children with critical race theory,” Matt Schlapp, the Conservative Political Action Coalition chairman, said in a statement, saluting Florida for taking steps to assure that the state’s children would not be vulnerable to “ultraradical misinformed policies of sex and gender.”

And of course Florida is a classic swing state, which makes its 29 electoral votes a valuable prize, especially since the state is a bellwether, having voted for the eventual winner in 21 of the 24 presidential elections since 1928.

But in 2020, Mr. Trump defeated Joe Biden here by a 51-48 margin. The Republican got the state’s electoral votes but that wasn’t enough to win a second term. So it is here, in the fortress of elegance and excess built by Marjorie Merriweather Post a century ago, that Mr. Trump is plotting his comeback, or at least contemplating it. That alone affirms Florida’s position at the centre of American politics.

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