GOP candidates focus on Florida


Published: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 6:23 a.m.

After months of being virtually ignored, Florida is suddenly relevant in the presidential race.

Facts

Republican debate

Where: Florida Atlantic University's campus in Boca Raton

When: 9 to 10:30 tonight

On TV: It's being aired on MSNBC, WESH-2 and public television stations

More online: Sun staff writer Nathan Crabbe will be blogging live from the debate. To read the blog, visit watchdog.gainesville. com. If you're planning to attend, e-mail him at nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com.

While the Democratic candidates have sworn off Florida, the GOP field is crisscrossing the state. Former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani has staked his campaign on success in the Jan. 29 primary, while the other Republican contenders are banking on a strong showing to build momentum before two dozen states vote the following Tuesday.

"They've spent their time in other states, now it's our turn," said Stafford Jones, chairman of the Alachua County Republican Executive Committee.

Alachua County has seen less of the candidates and their surrogates than other parts of Florida, but the county is getting a last-minute surge. Visits by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and the wife of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on Tuesday are expected to be followed by a stop by one of Romney's sons and a rally Sunday featuring Arizona Sen. John McCain, according to campaign officials.

Arguably the biggest event before Florida's primary vote is a single debate featuring the five main Republican candidates. Political analysts say the debate will be a crucial test for candidates just five days before a primary election that could decide whether they stay in the race.

"This is a make or debate," said Christian Waugh, president of Law School Republicans at the University of Florida. "It couldn't be more important."

Waugh is a member of Leadership Florida, which is sponsoring the debate. He's helping set up the event and will work as a host for the Romney campaign, taking care of the candidate and his staff.

"I'm here to make sure they have what they need," he said.

He said he's aware of a handful of UF students who plan to attend, joining a crowd that is expected to be filled with young people. About 400 students will be admitted into the Florida Atlantic University hall where the debate is being held, while another 500 are expected to attend a debate watch party elsewhere on campus.

Some observers are hoping the event provides a better discussion of the issues than previous debates.

Nat Willis, a Gainesville resident who works with AARP, said he hopes issues such as health care and retirement benefits get more air time than the bickering that has dominated other debates.

"They're arguing among themselves in the debates just like they're arguing among themselves in Washington," he said.

An AARP poll released Monday found economic security has replaced the Iraq war as the most important issue for older voters in the state. The housing crisis put economic concerns at the forefront of voters' minds, said Dan Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida.

"I really think the economy in Florida trumps all else," he said.

The debate will provide the last chance for Florida voters to see the Republican candidates assembled on one stage before the primary. The Democratic candidates had a similar debate scheduled, but backed out because of controversy around a decision to move the primary up to Jan. 29.

The major Democratic candidates pledged not to campaign in Florida and the national party has said no Florida delegates will be allowed at the convention. The Republican National Committee voted to deprive Florida of half its delegates, but the party's candidates can campaign here without penalty.

With former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson's decision to drop out of the race, the GOP field is down to five major candidates. Smith said each of the contenders are counting on success in Florida, but for different reasons.

Guiliani must show he made the right decision to concentrate solely on the state, Smith said.

"This is his Waterloo," he said. "If he does not do better than third, I'd say his campaign is over."

He said Huckabee must show a rise in the polls following his Iowa caucus victory can be sustained

"He took one on the chin in South Carolina," Smith said, referring to Huckabee's second-place finish there. "He's got a chance to resurrect himself in Florida."

McCain can solidify his place as the national front runner with a Florida win, according to Smith.

"He can really drive a stake in the heart of his rivals," he said.

Romney must be able to show he can appeal to average voters, Smith said, despite his background as multi-millionaire business executive.

"He's got a tough sell to be able to convince Florida voters that he can relate to them," he said.

Smith expects Texas Rep. Ron Paul will get a small but loyal showing among voters.

"There is certainly a strong, dedicated Libertarian cadre that will vote for him," he said.

No matter what the result, Smith said the campaigns will try to turn it into a positive.

"I'm sure all the candidates and their strategists have figured out the way they're going to spin these results," he said.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gville sun.com.

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