Republicans Look Ahead to Florida

With the South Carolina and Nevada contests behind them, the Republican presidential candidates are turning their attention to Florida. But there still isn't a clear frontrunner in the race. Presidential hopefuls John McCain and Mitt Romney each have two wins. And Mike Huckabee is vowing to continue his bid for the country's highest office, while Rudy Giuliani also plans to make a stand in Florida.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

At least four people can claim some advantage in the Republican presidential contest. John McCain won South Carolina's primary on Saturday. Mike Huckabee came in second. Mitt Romney won caucuses in Nevada over the weekend. All three of them have won somewhere. And the next state up for the Republicans is Florida, where Rudolph Giuliani has campaigned almost nonstop.

NPR's Don Gonyea joins us now on Orlando.

Don, good morning.

DON GONYEA: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So, okay - so you were covering the Giuliani campaign yesterday in a planned community known as Celebration, which is ironic, since Giuliani hasn't been able to celebrate anything yet.

GONYEA: Exactly. It's a Disney community. It's just outside of Orlando. And this is a state where Rudy Giuliani has banked everything. And - well, he had a bus tour, kind of across central Florida, an area that is rich in Republican votes for this Republican primary. So let's - let's let him talk about it himself for a moment. He appeared on ABC's "This Week" yesterday morning as he embarked upon this big campaign swing.

Mr. RUDOLPH GIULIANI (Former Republican Mayor, New York; Presidential Candidate): We're concentrating on Florida. We've been here for two weeks. We've been campaigning here not quite full time, but just about full time for two weeks. We decided some time back that this is the place where we should put our most emphasis, that it worked our strengths and weaknesses the best.

GONYEA: And he said he has been here just about full time; that's true. It's the only place he's really been campaigning close to full time. But now he no longer has the place to himself. The primary here is at the 29th, so everybody else is showing up. And I can tell you, he once held a pretty sizeable lead here. According to the most recent polls, it has shrunk to virtually nothing, John McCain being the one who's really moving up.

INSKEEP: When Giuliani says Florida works his strengths and weaknesses the best, what strengths and weaknesses does he mean?

GONYEA: As a candidate, you can see that he is very comfortable here. He is drawing enthusiastic crowds. I saw him in Celebration last night. It wasn't a huge venue. It wasn't a theater that holds thousands of people. It was a small atrium at a college. It looked like it held about 300 people, and that's about how many were there. He clearly has a celebrity appeal that most candidates would love to have. But he also - he has some negatives for Republicans.

And again, this is a Republican-only primary. The fact that he's been a supporter of abortion rights doesn't help. He spends a lot of time still talking about his record, responding to 9/11 being, from New York City. You know, he looks back at that day and really uses that to focus on his leadership abilities. But other than that day, being mayor of New York City, a big liberal northeastern city, isn't necessarily a plus.

But here is what he's banking on too. Florida is a southern state, yes, but a southern state with lots of retirees from places like New York and New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia area. A lot of them are northern Republicans, and Giuliani is counting on them really liking his brand of Republicanism and there being enough of them to carry the day for him.

INSKEEP: We should mention that Giuliani has now tried his hard as some of the other candidates for other early primaries and caucuses, as in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina; didn't do very well in any of them, which raises the question of how strong his opponents are after they have been winning those contests.

GONYEA: Yes, and there's also a big question. Can someone, Giuliani, who won just two percent of the vote in an important state like South Carolina, turn around and win in a very competitive field next time down in Florida?

But if you look at the others - McCain comes here very strong and he should have a natural base of appeal here as well. And because South Carolina has that perfect track record of picking the GOP nominee, he comes here with a real feather in his cap.

Mike Huckabee comes here really needing to revive his candidacy. I mean, he has been close, but he hasn't won one since Iowa. As you said, he got strong support from evangelicals in South Carolina, but not as strong as he'd gotten in Iowa, where he won. There is a good evangelical vote down here. He needs them to turn out in a really big, big way for him.

Mitt Romney, of course, does have the fact that he won Nevada over the weekend. So he'll be talking about that.

INSKEEP: And Romney has the money.

GONYEA: And Romney has plenty of money to compete here and to Super Tuesday beyond.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Don Gonyea in Orlando.

Dan, thanks very much.

GONYEA: A pleasure.

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