GOP Hopefuls Fight over Wide-Open Florida
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The place to be today for Republicans is Florida. It is by far the most populous state to vote so far. With its primary just a week off and polls showing the race there to be tight, Republicans are crisscrossing Florida. Any one of four candidates - Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, John McCain or Mitt Romney - could win. Yesterday the candidates tried out some new themes.
NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Orlando.
DON GONYEA: Rudy Giuliani wrapped up a two-day bus tour across Florida's midsection yesterday by taking a lap on the oval track at Daytona Speedway. Florida is considered a must-win for the former New York City mayor, who has taken it easy in the first laps in the earliest primary and caucus states. The idea is to now go full throttle in Florida, a state that's home to hundreds of thousands of retirees from New York and New Jersey who still call Giuliani Mr. Mayor. But while the man many people refer to simply as Rudy once held a fat lead here in the polls, it's been dwindling and is now gone. Yesterday he downplayed that development.
Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former Mayor, New York City; Republican Presidential Candidate): Florida is Rudy country, right?
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
Mr. GIULIANI: And it is because I believe that this country needs strong, it needs bold leadership. It needs leadership that's going to take us into the next century - better, stronger.
GONYEA: One of several challengers rising to compete with Giuliani in Florida is Mitt Romney. He toured the Kennedy Space Center yesterday and held rallies in Jacksonville, Daytona and Orlando. He also unveiled a new campaign slogan. The words "Washington is Broken" were emblazoned on a banner behind his head.
Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Governor, Massachusetts; Republican Presidential Candidate): Washington is broken. If you listen to what the politicians have been telling us over the past 20, 30 years - and a few of you have been around long enough to listen to that, those promises - you'll recognize that the things they're talking about today are the same things they were talking about 20, 30 years ago, and just haven't gotten done.
GONYEA: The Romney campaign did something else different yesterday. The candidate's wife, Ann, told crowds at rallies that while she and her husband may seem to have the perfect life, that they, too, have known hardship. She then spoke in an unusually personal manner.
Ms. ANN ROMNEY: I think some of you may be aware that I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a number of years ago, and that was a very trying and dark time in my life. And to have my husband help me through that was a wonderful thing that he did. He was the one that really helped me push through the hardest, darkest days.
GONYEA: As for the other leading candidates, Mike Huckabee started his day yesterday in Atlanta at a memorial service honoring Dr. Martin Luther King at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Afterward, Huckabee spoke with reporters about the civil rights leader.
Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Governor, Arkansas; Republican Presidential Candidate): Based on his own personal convictions that came from his ministry and his life, he led, and government had to follow. And had he not led, I'm not sure government would have ever gotten the message.
GONYEA: As for the primary, Huckabee also told reporters, quote, "that no one will have this thing wrapped up after Florida." Possibly not, but the man who might come closest is the national polling leader, Senator John McCain, who was in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood courting Cuban-American voters. He made a connection by noting that during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, he was on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise between Cuba and the approaching Soviet ships.
Mr. HUCKABEE: I'm proud to have fought for and defended the freedom of the people of Cuba, consistently calling for continuing the embargo until there's free elections, human right organizations, and a free and independent country.
(Soundbite of applause)
GONYEA: This year, the Florida GOP will award all 57 of its delegates to whichever candidate wins a plurality, making this by far the richest delegate prize so far - just one week from today.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Orlando.