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GOP race in Florida is Romney vs. McCain

The two candidates are running neck and neck before the Republican primary Tuesday.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 29, 2008

Final push: Mitt Romney at a rally in Fort Myers, Fla., Monday.

mike segar/reuters

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Fort Myers, Fla.

As a matter of logic, Mitt Romney would seem to have an edge going into Florida's Republican primary on Tuesday. The economy is the No. 1 issue, and the former Massachusetts governor clearly has the strongest economic portfolio of the Republican presidential candidates, as a megawealthy businessman, turnaround artist of the 2002 Olympics, and a state chief executive.

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Sen. John McCain of Arizona, neck and neck with Mr. Romney in Florida polls, is less well versed in economics than he is in security matters, by his own admission. But voter decisions are never that simple. And in a state that skews toward older, more experienced voters, electability also looms large.

Polls show Mr. McCain doing better in general election matchups than Romney, and that could help McCain.

"You have a more informed electorate here, and some voters are strategic," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Even though independent voters are shut out of Florida's primary, making this the first "closed" contest of the 2008 nominating season, "we can't downplay the fact that some would see [McCain's] appeal to independents as a plus," she adds. "Bottom line here, people are looking with part of an eye on the primary, and 1 1/2 eyes on the general."

Whoever wins here will get a shot of momentum going into Tsunami Tuesday, the 21 primaries and caucuses around the country on Feb. 5, with 41 percent of the total GOP delegates in play. Floridians know their vote matters: Between the two major parties, nearly a million people either voted early or cast absentee ballots, a sign of the hotly contested races on both sides.

For Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York who has staked his candidacy on doing very well here, if not winning, his only hope rests on having banked lots of early votes when the polling places first opened Jan. 14 and he was still competitive in the polls, analysts say.

In the past two weeks, Mr. Giuliani's numbers have tanked. On Monday, McCain led Romney by 0.8 percent – both around 30 percent, and well inside the margin of error – in the average of recent polls, while Giuliani was at 16 percent.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who made a splash early this month by winning the Iowa GOP caucuses, appears to be near the end of his trail, with just 13 percent of the Florida Republican vote. About 23 percent of Florida voters self-identify as evangelical, and Mr. Huckabee is winning that group with 35 percent, but Romney is drawing a fair share, 20 percent, according to the latest Mason-Dixon poll.

Another important demographic group in Florida is the military, either retired or active, which combined represent 29 percent of the GOP vote. McCain would seem a natural fit for them, given his storied past as a Vietnam POW. But analysts warn against making assumptions.