LADY LAKE, Fla. -- The presidential showdown in Florida was supposed to be a four-way scuffle, with Rudolph W. Giuliani challenging rival Republicans to come on down to the Sunshine State and try to knock him off.
Instead, the contest appears to have become a two-way fight: Mitt Romney's money and can-do businessman image versus Sen. John McCain's momentum and support from top state politicians. Giuliani is fading, with polls showing him in a third-place struggle with Mike Huckabee that could end Giuliani's candidacy.
Giuliani acknowledged in a CBS interview yesterday that he "was surprised" by the weekend endorsement of McCain by Florida's popular governor, Republican Charlie Crist, the most recent blow to Giuliani's chances in this state.
Tomorrow's election might be the most important Republican primary of the year, and not only because it could remove from contention the former New York mayor, who led in the national polls for most of last year.
Florida is also a test market for the next phase of the race, when the campaign goes national in 22 Super Tuesday states over the next week. Florida's election pits the power of paid advertising in a classic media state -- where voters get much of their information from television -- against the influence of "free" coverage on the news and in the papers.
If McCain wins here, he'd gain a clear advantage as the front-runner for the Republican nomination. A Romney victory would block that and make the former Massachusetts governor a much more serious contender, perhaps positioning him to go all the way.
Romney's personal wealth -- by one report, he's put $40 million of his money into the campaign -- makes him the only contender with the ability to advertise widely in Super Tuesday states. One of those -- California -- costs $3.5 million for a statewide ad drive, according to campaign consultants in that state.
McCain and the other Republicans say they have enough money to compete. But their limited resources will force them to rely far more on local and national news coverage, rather than paid advertising, to get their message across.
Beyond Florida's sheer size -- the nation's fourth-most populous state is the biggest to vote so far -- it is also the first "closed" primary of the year. Only registered Republicans can take part, which poses a challenge for McCain, who does better when independents and Democrats can vote.
Florida Democrats also have a primary, but the national party is refusing to recognize the results, because the election violates rules about when states can vote.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York announced yesterday that she'll be in Florida tomorrow night. With polls showing her to be the likely Democratic victor, she is hoping that positive publicity from Florida's nonbinding vote will help offset her landslide defeat Saturday in South Carolina by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.
Florida Republicans have also been penalized by their national party, which took away half the state's national convention delegates for moving up the primary date. But unlike the Democrats, who pledged not to campaign in this state, the Republicans have been waging a fierce struggle.
Romney and McCain are in a virtual tie for the lead, according to the latest polls. They show that the slowing economy has replaced terrorism and Iraq war as the leading concern of voters here and across the country.
Romney has saturated the airwaves with television commercials that promote his 25-year record as a venture capitalist and experience in "the real economy." Romney also hired veterans from former Gov. Jeb Bush's team and built a state organization, while McCain shut down his Florida operation for six months after his campaign ran out of money.
McCain, badly outspent on TV, has tried in recent days to shift the debate away from the economy and back to national security.
"We're at war. People seem to forget it," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democrat turned independent who has endorsed McCain, told an overflow audience of 600 at a McCain rally here in Central Florida yesterday.
McCain has accused Romney of favoring a date for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, comparing him to Clinton for wanting to "wave a white flag." But Romney never advocated a pullout. He did say last spring that President Bush should get Iraq's leaders to agree on a private timetable and milestones for U.S. military involvement in Iraq.
Romney calls McCain's charge a dishonest and desperate attack, and he's demanded an apology.
McCain "does not understand the economy, has no experience in the private economy. And right now, that's the biggest issue people are facing. So he's doing his best to change topics," Romney said yesterday on CNN.
Yesterday, the Arizona senator said he wouldn't back off, telling NBC's Meet the Press that Romney had "equivocated" on Iraq. But in his first campaign appearance after that show, he barely mentioned Romney's position and by the second stop he'd dropped it.
In the final days of the campaign, McCain picked up endorsements from two statewide Republicans that Romney had been courting: Crist, the governor, and Mel Martinez, the state's Cuban-born Republican senator.
McCain is the Republican with "the best chance to win in November," Martinez told voters yesterday at The Villages, an upscale retirement community.
Because about 400,000 Republicans had cast early ballots through the middle of last week, it wasn't clear how much the late support would help McCain. Also, both Crist and Martinez are less admired by the state's more conservative Republican voters because of their stances on issues such as immigration or climate change, among others.
The battle for core Republican voters has been played out across the state and online.
Romney's campaign is lampooning McCain's reputation as "the Democrats' favorite Republican" in a Web-only TV ad that called him "the only Republican who could run with Hillary or Obama." The video reminded viewers that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry had talked to McCain about becoming his running mate on the Democratic ticket in 2004 and makes fun of McCain's endorsement by The New York Times' liberal-leaning editorial page.
For his part, McCain posted an Internet ad that likened Romney to Kerry, pasting Romney's face on windsurfing photographs of the Democratic senator and accusing the Massachusetts Republican of tailoring his positions to "whichever way the wind blows." In this case, the subject was taxes, a central element of the Romney-McCain debate.
McCain voted against the 2001 Bush tax cuts and opposed their extension in 2004; he now favors making them permanent. Romney, who has pressed the tax cut issue for weeks, was initially cool to the Bush cuts but now strongly backs them, too.
While the leaders exchanged charges, the fourth contender in this state, Huckabee, was struggling for attention.
His cash-short campaign may be the purest test of the value of "free" media coverage versus paid advertising heading into Super Tuesday. The former Arkansas governor did not advertise at all in Florida and is relying on support from informal networks of evangelical Christians and social conservatives, which delivered Iowa to him but failed to produce enough votes for a victory since then.