Analysis: Florida can clarify GOP race

January 23, 2008 6:38:48 PM PST
The aftermath of the South Carolina primary brought some measure of clarity to the muddled Republican presidential race. Florida could well sort it out.

In the four days since they stumbled in the first-in-the-South primary, Fred Thompson dropped out and Mike Huckabee made clear that money is extremely tight, his campaign little more than a token effort. That leaves John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani fighting it out in winner-take-all Florida as the focus shifts to the slumping economy - and who is most capable of dealing with it.

"We will have a pro-growth, pro-economic, low-tax, low-spending agenda when I'm president," McCain said Wednesday during an economic round-table with local business officials in the warehouse of a company that makes hot tubs and spa equipment.

"I know why jobs come and go," Romney argued in this central Florida city earlier this week, emphasizing his 25 years in the private sector.

Not to be outdone, Giuliani said Wednesday in Estero on Florida's southwest coast: "I was tested dealing with an economy that was in very bad shape when I became mayor of New York City."

The three Republicans are canvassing the vast and diverse state in the six days leading up to Tuesday's primary, running TV ads and targeting areas where they believe they can pick up the most votes.

Florida is different than previous contests: Only registered Republicans can vote in the primary, the state offers the winner a hefty 57 delegates to the GOP convention and it serves as a gateway to the Feb. 5 de facto national primary day when some two dozen states vote.

Up for grabs are Thompson backers looking for an alternative after he abandoned his bid on Tuesday.

Associated Press polling suggests that they would scatter across all the candidates, though it appears Romney would get the largest share. That could be bad news for Giuliani, who attracts more moderates than conservatives, and McCain, who won the South Carolina primary in part because three candidates split the far-right vote.

To a certain extent, Huckabee supporters, can be picked off too.

The former Arkansas governor rallied evangelicals to win Iowa but didn't prevail in South Carolina. That left his shoestring campaign hungry for cash. Some staff left; others aren't getting paid. Huckabee said he probably won't advertise in Florida and his thin schedule includes only brief stops at airports. His support, surely, will take a hit.

"Fewer people are going after the conservative wing of the party," said Rich Galen, a former Thompson adviser. "Without Thompson or Huckabee in the race in the Florida, there's a clear path for Romney to run to the right of Giuliani and McCain."

Huckabee seems to be competing not for the nomination but rather to be seen as the newest leader of the evangelical wing of the party - and to have a say at that convention, if not thereafter.

Thus, the Florida race is essentially between three men - and the outcome will be critical for each.

"It's campaign-changing for all of them because a win or a second or a third has a different impact on the long-term viability of their candidacies," said Christopher LaCivita, an unaligned Republican strategist.

Among the big Florida unknowns: whether Republican Gov. Charlie Crist will endorse, and the impact of absentee voters who can comprise up to 30 percent of the vote.

MCCAIN:

The Arizona senator came to Florida with momentum from New Hampshire and South Carolina. But those two wins were fueled in part by independents, and the Florida primary is Republican-only. That's a potential roadblock.

So are cash-flow issues. He's on the air with moderate-to-heavy levels of TV ads in most parts of Florida but, nonetheless, has been forced to spend part of the week holding private fundraisers to pump more money into his buys and prepare for the next contests.

Polls in some upcoming states show McCain leading Giuliani, who once held the advantage in California and New York. But a loss in Florida would make it difficult for McCain to compete aggressively in what will be an expensive TV campaign. A win would cement his image as the GOP front-runner and produce loads of positive - and free - media coverage as well as a likely cash windfall.

ROMNEY:

The former Massachusetts governor won hard-fought Michigan as well as scarcely contested Wyoming and Nevada. He found a message that works - fixing the economy - and he's sticking to it, hammering his credentials in TV ads and at campaign events. That could give him an edge among Florida's significant elderly population concerned about retirement accounts and investments.

Romney's personal wealth gives him a significant advantage over his rivals. He's running heavy levels of ads most everywhere - and he has money to spare - as he courts economic conservatives and seeks to peel off Thompson and Huckabee supporters.

Because of his money, Romney wouldn't be dead if he doesn't win Florida. He could live another week to compete on Feb. 5. A win would make him hard to beat.

GIULIANI:

The former New York mayor has lost six straight primaries and caucuses - and has pinned his entire candidacy on a Florida win. Anything short of that would effectively end his bid.

Money is an issue. Senior aides have forgone their paychecks this month, and Giuliani has spent much of his time this week at fundraisers as he seeks to stay competitive on TV.

He hopes to benefit from his support for an issue important to Floridians - a national catastrophe insurance fund. He's the only Republican to outrightly support the issue, a top federal priority for Crist.

But a firefighters union angry over his performance on Sept. 11, 2001, are sending direct mail critical of Giuliani and have been dogging him on the campaign.


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