Republicans Set for Last Debate Before Fla. Primary The field of Republican presidential candidates is dwindling. A debate Thursday night in Boca Raton is their last encounter before Tuesday's pivotal Florida primary. The candidate with the most at stake is former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, but polls show him slipping in Florida.
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Republicans Set for Last Debate Before Fla. Primary

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Republicans Set for Last Debate Before Fla. Primary

Republicans Set for Last Debate Before Fla. Primary

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The stage is set in Boca Raton, Florida. Tonight, the Republican presidential candidates square off one last time before Tuesday's big primary. Fred Thompson is now out of the race, and Florida could further narrow the field.

Rudy Giuliani has all but staked his candidacy on the strong showing there. State polls suggest a close race among Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney. Mike Huckabee, who won Iowa and came close in South Carolina, is short on funds. He's mostly looking beyond Florida to Super Tuesday.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: The theme of the Republican race this year could be called nomentum(ph). There are now four Republican candidates who can claim to have won something but none of them seems to have any momentum going into Florida. The man with the most to lose is Rudy Giuliani who hasn't won anything yet. He's staked his campaign on winning Florida.

Mike DuHaime is Giuliani's campaign manager.

Mr. MICHAEL DuHAIME (Campaign Manager, Rudolph Giuliani's Presidential Campaign): We have focused a lot on Florida. Rudy's been campaigned here a lot. There's no denying this will be an important state for us. But for us, it's just beginning, really.

LIASSON: Most observers believe if Giuliani doesn't win Florida, it will really be just the end.

Already, his lead in national polls has evaporated, and the new Florida poll shows Giuliani dropping to third behind John McCain and Mitt Romney.

The path ahead for McCain is also complicated. He came back from the political dead to win New Hampshire and South Carolina, and a win in Florida would certainly make him the front-runner, although that title has been almost meaningless this year.

But if he does win Florida, he will face an army of enemies: Republican conservatives who the maverick McCain has crossed over the years on issues like campaign finance overhaul, immigration, torture, global warming, taxes and stem-cell research.

Here are just two of them.

Mr. TOM DeLAY (Former House Majority Leader): I think McCain has done more to hurt the Republican Party than elected official I know of. He has fought the Republican Party in everything that we've done.

Mr. RUSH LIMBAUGH (Host, "The Rush Limbaugh Show"): McCain, frankly, has shown conservatives little but contempt over many years.

LIASSON: That's former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Their anger illustrates one of McCain's biggest obstacles in Florida. It's a close primary. Only Republicans can vote and McCain won't be able to rely on the independent voters who helped him win the open primaries in South Carolina and New Hampshire.

And what if he manages to win Florida? Will McCain be able to unite the party behind him? There's a raging debate about this question in Republican circles right now.

Strategist Scott Reid thinks he can.

Mr. SCOTT REID (Political Strategist): At the end of the day, McCain has the ability to transcend all that. As he wins primaries, it shows that he can be victorious in the fall. And at the end of the day, Republicans and conservatives, they're still going to rally around the McCain candidacy because the liberal alternative is unacceptable. And that's probably what McCain has gone for invest.

LIASSON: In hypothetical head-to-head matchups, McCain does do better against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama than any other Republican candidate. But first, he'll have to defeat Mitt Romney, his strongest opponent who has shown no hesitation to spend his own personal wealth in pursuit of the nomination. His senior advisor, Vin Webber, says Romney has worked hard to position himself as the candidate who can unify the party.

Mr. VIN WEBER (Mitt Romney's Senior Advisor): He has systematically and carefully gone out to build bridges and appeal to all the different factions of the Republican Party - economic conservatives, national security conservatives, social conservatives. Here, anybody else will have to work to pull the whole party together. But in his case, there are no overriding obstacles.

LIASSON: There are two outcomes in Florida that could help Romney. One, of course, is a victory for himself, the other is a Giuliani win, which would leave the former New York city mayor alive to battle John McCain over moderate votes in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere on February 5th, giving Romney a clearer shot at conservative support.

But Romney, too, faces doubts among Republicans about electability. On paper, he's broadly acceptable to all the GOP factions. But in national polls, he's the weakest Republican against both Obama and Clinton. Just one of the many reasons this year's Republican race will probably remain muddled long after Florida votes.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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