Correction to This Article
The Jan. 21 A-section article incorrectly said that Sen. John McCain and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee split the Republican vote in the New Hampshire GOP primary. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney split the GOP vote with McCain.

GOP Field Readies for True Test In Florida

(By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008

COLUMBIA, S.C., Jan. 20 -- 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.

Leaving South Carolina on Sunday, McCain at first seemed hesitant to adopt the mantle of Republican leader. "I don't know how to define a front-runner," he told reporters asking him if he believed he was now the candidate to beat in the GOP race.

Minutes later, he changed his mind. Asked about critical comments from former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, McCain shot back with a grin, "When someone hasn't run a primary, I can understand why they would attack the front-runner."

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.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has won Nevada's caucuses and the Michigan primary in the past week, sees Florida as a potential breakthrough for his once-battered candidacy and is pouring more of his personal fortune into the state in an effort to deny McCain a victory.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, after a loss to McCain in South Carolina, looks to Florida as perhaps a last opportunity to show that his Iowa caucus victory at the start of the nominating season was not a fluke. A second consecutive Southern loss would be especially costly for the underfunded Huckabee.

But what makes Florida most different from the contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina is the presence of Giuliani as a full-fledged participant. The onetime national front-runner has finished far back in the Republican pack this year -- behind Rep. Ron Paul of Texas in Iowa, Michigan, Nevada and South Carolina. But Giuliani has been parked in Florida for several weeks and has made the primary the critical test for his candidacy.

Whether former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee will be competing at all remains a question mark after his third-place finish in South Carolina, the state he was hoping would give him his first breakthrough of the year.

There was considerable speculation that Thompson would quit the race if he did not do well in South Carolina, but aides said Sunday that no decision had been made. "We are in the process of assessing the state of the campaign, but as of this point no decisions or plans have been made one way or the other," spokesman Todd Harris said.

Florida offers a large and complex battleground for the Republican candidates. A full complement of television ads would run at least $3 million between now and the primary, perhaps more, according to strategists in the state. No candidate, not even the wealthy Romney, will be able to spend so freely.

Romney has ordered up about $1 million in TV commercials, and an adviser said more might be bought depending on the state of the race. McCain's campaign has promised to counter with a seven-figure buy of its own. The Giuliani team expects to be competitive with McCain on television but not with Romney. Huckabee's hand-to-mouth campaign will struggle to stay abreast of the others.

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