Where Now for GOP Hopefuls?

Where do John McCain, the Republican winner in South Carolina's primary, and the other GOP president wannabes go from here? Perhaps it could be called Six GOP Flags over Florida.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

We turn now to NPR's David Greene in Charleston, South Carolina, as he looks ahead to where the race for the GOP nomination goes from here. It could be called Six Flags over Florida.

DAVID GREENE: Before John McCain came out to declare victory last night, 18-year-old Alex Ropson(ph) was in the crowd, finishing up a poster for the Arizona senator.

Mr. ALEX ROPSON: We made a sign that says New Hampshire, and he got a check mark there. We got South Carolina. And I think if we could put the check mark there, he'll get to White House, and that's the next check mark that we're going to have.

GREENE: You don't need any more check marks in between there?

Mr. RAPSON: South Carolina has a pretty good track record taking the next nominee for the president is really the next president of the United States.

GREENE: You've heard this before: Every winner of the South Carolina GOP primary since 1980 has gone on to the nomination. But even McCain last night said not so fast.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): We have a ways to go, my friends, and there's some tough contests ahead. And starting tomorrow in the state of Florida, where we're going to win with your support…

(Soundbite of cheering)

GREENE: In South Carolina last night, runner-up Mike Huckabee said much the same.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas; Republican Presidential Candidate): Let me just say that tonight is not a time to start asking what if. It's a time to start talking about what now.

GREENE: What happens now is the GOP race moves onto Florida with as many as a half dozen candidates still standing. California Congressman Duncan Hunter dropped out yesterday and Fred Thompson seems in some trouble having relied on a good showing in South Carolina and having finished with 15 percent. Even if Thompson drops out, McCain, Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are still in the hunt, and even Ron Paul has been picking up enough votes to be a factor. It's all pretty hard to sort out.

Bill Greener is a Republican strategist, who says he was asked who would win the last primary in Michigan, and wrongly predicted it would be McCain.

Mr. BILL GREENER (Republican Strategist): And the guy who interviewed me said, you know, I'm not sure the system is going to run before the Michigan primary, but if Romney wins the Michigan primary, I'll make sure the thing gets edited to where you don't look so stupid.

GREENE: So here's Greener's current take: McCain and Huckabee now both have momentum that's there's to lose. As for lingering questions about McCain's fundraising, Greener says all McCain really need is enough cash to fly to the twenty-some states voting February 5th.

Mr. GREENER: There's not enough hours in the day or money in the universe to redefine yourself as a candidate in those states by February 5th. So as a consequence of that, it is almost entirely, if not exclusively, reliant upon personal persona.

GREENE: McCain's name and reputation are well-known, Greener said, so if he can land in many of the states and get on local news that would keep him more than competitive. But McCain has to start in Florida. The primary there on the 29th will set the table for Super Tuesday, and there are so many Sunshine State scenarios.

Florida could be Romney's first win in a competitive state he wasn't born at, or maybe Huckabee could find enough evangelicals to become the frontrunner, or it could be the restart button for Rudy Giuliani, the one-time frontrunner who has been invisible of late except if on Saturday you happened to be in the Florida Everglades.

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former Republican Mayor, New York; Republican Presidential Candidate): We know about these issues but you don't really understand them until you see them firsthand how important the everglades is to our ecology, how important it is to all of us not just in Florida.

GREENE: Giuliani's lonely days in Florida are over. The rest of the field is arriving there immediately. Mitt Romney landed in the Sunshine State last night, saying…

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Republican Presidential Candidate): I care very much about Florida.

GREENE: That's a message we'll be hearing a lot from every Republican candidate in coming days.

David Greene, NPR News, Charleston, South Carolina.

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