WASHINGTON -- Talk about a flip-flop. A month or two ago Mitt Romney and John McCain were trailing Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee in the polls and all but declared politically dead.
Now the Republican presidential contest has turned into a very close race between McCain (who won New Hampshire and South Carolina) and Romney (who won Michigan and Nevada), while Huckabee and Giuliani were trailing badly in the polls in key state primaries to come.
For most of 2007, no one could touch Giuliani in Florida, the state he had chosen to focus on after all but dissing the early state contests. But the former New York mayor, who lost momentum and voter visibility in the last month, has fallen badly behind in the Sunshine State as has the former Arkansas governor.
Romney could not gain any real traction in Florida last year. He was little known by voters there and had invested few of his resources in the state, concentrating on the early caucus and primary contests. McCain was badly weakened by the immigration issue.
But at the end of last week, both McCain and Romney were locked in a virtual dead heat in Tuesday's Florida primary and it is not a stretch to say that the race may be between the former Massachusetts governor and the Arizona senator from here on out.
A St. Petersburg Times poll last week showed McCain at 25 percent and Romney at 23 percent, with the once-upon-a-time frontrunners Giuliani and Huckabeee at 15 percent each. Other polls showed the race is just as tight between the two frontrunners.
Support for Giuliani was fading fast elsewhere, too. A new Field Poll in California, the mother lode of delegates on Feb. 5, Super Tuesday, shows at 11 percent, down from 25 percent a month ago. Now McCain is leading there with 22 percent, closely followed by Romney at 18 percent. Recent polls even show McCain leading in Giuliani territory, including New York and New Jersey.
As for Huckabee, the winner in Iowa, he may be the one-state wonder that Romney has dubbed him. Running without a structured, broad, coherent message, with little money and no national organization to speak of, he is diminishing fast.
Giuliani is having money troubles, too, which is what happens when you not only fail to win any races but come in so far behind that donors desert you. He blew $2 million on TV ads in New Hampshire in a futile attempt to play catch up, money he could have used in Florida.
Meantime, McCain and Romney's improbable come-from-behind climb to the front of the pack may tell us more about the Republican electorate than has been evident thus far.