South Carolina has traditionally played the role of kingmaker in Republican presidential primaries. However, in a year in which momentum has been weak and no contender has won two contests in a row, that appears not to be the case this time around. Instead, eyes are now on Florida to see whether that state offers clues as to the path to the nomination. Top contenders are going all out to capture the state's 57 winner-take-all delegates on January 29.
Rudy Giuliani's description of Florida as a "microcosm" of the country is not mere flattery. A substantial block of social conservatives, a large Hispanic population, former northeasterners and Midwesterners, and the often decisive I-4 corridor voters make for a broad cross section of Republicans.
Unlike New Hampshire and Michigan, Florida does not allow Independents to vote in the GOP primary, so Florida will be a true test of which candidate can appeal to the spectrum of his Party's voters.
Immigration, which has been a top issue throughout the primaries and a source of conflict, may be discussed in more muted tones as the candidates jockey for favor among key Hispanic voters. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have both begun running Spanish language ads.
The economy will be a top concern. Giuliani has already begun to attack McCain's prior votes against the Bush tax cuts and to compare his record of tax cuts and economic growth to that of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. McCain has launched an attack on Romney, pointing to low job growth and increases of at least $500M in "fees" during Romney's tenure.
Local Florida issues will also come to the fore. Catastrophic property insurance is a key concern in the hurricane ravaged state. Giuliani has come out in favor of a national fund. McCain has said he opposes federal intervention in this area. Expect the candidates to aim their fire at Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro in order to bolster their appeal with Florida's Hispanic, mostly Cuban voters.
Who has the upper hand in the Sunshine state?
PRE-SOUTH CAROLINA polling showed McCain with a narrow lead over his rivals in Florida in the RealClearpolitics.com averages. In polling since South Carolina, Survey USA gives McCain the edge while Rasmussen shows Romney ahead.
Even his rivals concede that McCain will enjoy the benefits of a "bump" from a hard fought win. University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato explains that momentum has not been absent, just weak this year. He says, "There has always been momentum this year. But either it wasn't enough to win the next contest, or it faded before the next vote. There will again be momentum for McCain." However, it is far from clear that this alone will be enough to secure Florida.
Without Independents' support McCain must improve his standing among Republicans if he is to win in Florida. Recognizing the task before him to unite conservatives McCain's South Carolina victory speech stressed conservative themes -- a resolute defense, fiscal discipline, the rule of law and traditional values.
If McCain is to build on his success in South Carolina he will need to overcome the base's concerns about his past opposition to the Bush tax cuts and his support for comprehensive immigration reform. While the latter may be less of a liability in Florida, McCain's tax record will clearly be a focus of his rivals' attacks.
McCain will face a considerable challenge in Rudy Giuliani, whose unconventional strategy of essentially avoiding the early contests could be pay off. Despite barely registering in the early states, Giuliani remains well positioned to re-emerge in Florida. He has been campaigning vigorously for weeks, enjoys a strong following among transplanted northeasterners and Cuban Americans and offers a strong fiscal and national security message -- just the type of appeal which may cut into McCain's base of support. He received a lift last week when Americans for Tax Reform issued a rating sheet giving him the best marks among the GOP contenders on tax policy.
While McCain and Giuliani face limits on their financial resources, one opponent does not. Mitt Romney will be seeking to win his first fully contested primary. Coming off losses in Iowa and New Hampshire he kept his chances alive in Michigan and was able to save some face and divert attention from an embarrassing fourth place finish in South Carolina with a win in Nevada's caucus.
Romney now plays up his Washington outsider status by emphasizing his private sector background -- a timely message as the economy drifts into a downturn. He remains a threat in Florida where he may cobble together support from fiscal and social conservatives who still may harbor doubts about McCain as the party's standard bearer. However, Romney will himself face scrutiny about his record as Massachusetts governor and ongoing concerns from voters that he lacks core convictions.
Mike Huckabee's star has dimmed but he remains a formidable contender in Florida. Corralling 41 percent of the evangelical vote but only 14 percent of other voters in South Carolina, he failed to show he can expand beyond his core base of support. Nevertheless in a multi-candidate field he still may capture large numbers of votes from social conservative value voters who are estimated to make up 25-30 percent of the primary electorate.
In contrast to the 2000 race, South Carolina did not dash McCain's hopes this time. However after just a few days of frenzied campaigning in Florida it is clear that the race is far from settled. The questions remain: Will McCain put to rest concerns from the conservative base, and, if not, is there another candidate who can emerge as a viable alternative heading into the Super Tuesday bonanza of primaries?
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