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January 21, 2008

The Big Contest

And so we come to Florida for the ultimate clarification, much as Rudy Giuliani predicted. Can John McCain win a race that includes only Republican voters? Can Mike Huckabee win another state at all? Can Mitt Romney parlay his financial advantage to victory in a state not predisposed to support him? Will Fred Thompson even bother to campaign?

Riding the momentum from his weekend victory in South Carolina, John McCain turned his attention Sunday to Florida and the high-stakes primary there that will test whether the Arizona senator can consolidate support among Republican voters and take control of the GOP nomination battle.

The Jan. 29 contest in Florida will be the first Republican primary closed to independent voters, who have provided McCain with his margins of victory in both New Hampshire and South Carolina. A victory, strategists agreed, would stamp McCain as the front-runner in what has been a muddied Republican race and give him a clear advantage heading toward Super Tuesday on Feb. 5. ...

Florida has played a pivotal role in the past two general elections and now is poised to help determine who the Republicans will send into the main event this November. The primary looms as a potential showdown in the GOP nomination battle not only because of its size and importance but because it will be the first this year in which all the leading candidates are competing.

Rudy Giuliani finally arrives on the scene for this contest. He made no secret of his plans to keep the powder dry for this contest, and now he has to fight off the perception that he has disappeared in all of the media coverage that ignored him over the last three weeks. While Rudy sat patiently in Florida, the national media covered races in earlier primary states 24/7, and his voluntary irrelevance in those contests meant no earned media exposure. He has slipped in national standing to those who have already won states as a result.

He still remains in the thick of it in Florida, however. Recent polls listed at Real Clear Politics show John McCain winning five out of six, but almost all within the margin of error with Rudy. Romney and Huckabee trade for third place in most of the same polls, all taken in January.

Given Florida's status as the first fully closed primary, this will provide a bellwether for Republicans going into Super Tuesday. McCain won two states with help from crossover voters, but with Rudy in the race, Rudy could dilute enough support from other candidates to give McCain an opportunity to win.

I'd guess that Rudy wins Florida. It's tailor-made for him, with plenty of Northeastern retirees and an active Cuban-American base that wants to see hard-nosed policy rather than moderation. If that happens, we can forget clarification, and Super Tuesday becomes a delegate hunt, pure and simple, with everyone viable and a brokered convention more and more likely. If McCain wins Florida, it turns into a two-man race, with Romney becoming the improbable conservative standard-bearer.


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