As I write this column for Jacksonville's Florida Times-Union and Creators Syndicate, it is Thursday afternoon, Jan. 24. Our latest InsiderAdvantage survey of Florida, conducted with our partners at Majority Opinion Research, shows John McCain and Mitt Romney in basically a tie going into the weekend before the huge Florida Republican primary.
It remains my opinion that the winners of the Florida primaries will be the ultimate nominees of both the Republican and Democratic parties. This, despite that the Democratic National Committee has done its party a huge disservice by ruling that no delegates will be awarded based on Tuesday's primary.
Let's talk about the Democrats first. Every poll has shown Sen. Hillary Clinton with a big lead in Florida. Sen. Barack Obama is headed for a clear victory in Saturday's South Carolina Democratic primary, in large part because he is carrying a large portion of the African-American vote there, where blacks make up nearly half of the Democratic voters.
But it is unlikely Obama will get enough of a bump from this expected win to overcome Clinton's lead in Florida. The only way the race becomes close is if the turnout in Florida on the Democratic side is so severely depressed as a result of the DNC's rules that Obama's supporters turn out in greater numbers and pull off an upset.
If Clinton wins Florida, even if the votes don't count as of now, she will have the bragging rights and momentum of having won the first contested truly "big" state. That makes large venues such as California much easier for her campaign.
As far as the GOP goes, all candidates realize that it's Florida or bust for them. Our InsiderAdvantage survey asked Floridians not only if they intend to vote next Tuesday, but if they have already voted. Many Americans would be shocked to learn that as of earlier this week, nearly a third of the primary votes expected to be cast had already been received, either by absentee ballot, or by Florida's robust early voter program.
The leadership of the Republican Party in America is up for grabs. If Sen. John McCain wins, the power structure of the party likely will be wholly different than it has been for years under the watchful eye of the George W. Bush establishment. McCain has long been viewed by party mavens as a maverick and an outsider.
If former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney prevails, the GOP as we know it today will remain intact. Most of the political leaders and strategists who have helped the Bush family in years past are a part of the Romney effort.
This may seem insignificant, but intraparty politics is big and mean business. If those who have been in control lose out, their potential to have serious political power as elected officials, lobbyists and political operatives suffers a blow. And for some, that's a blow to their wallets.
Regardless of the outcome, it is hard to imagine that the winner of the GOP race in Florida won't emerge as the nominee. If McCain wins, he will have momentum to go along with a more moderate record. Both will appeal to Republican voters in California, where he has a lead in the polls among the GOP field that averages 8 percent, according to RealClearPolitics.
Should Romney win, the McCain train will have been slowed down. More specifically, his money flow will slow, too. Even now, with McCain faring as well as any GOP candidate, it's proving hard for him to collect cash. If he loses in Florida, he will run out of gas, and Romney will start piling up delegates.
Is there hope for Rudy Giuliani? Recall that his entire strategy was based on winning in Florida and then springboarding off of that.
No one really knows the answer. But for all the attacks on the validity of polls following the New Hampshire primaries, the fact remains that most of us in the polling business have been close to on-target in these races.
It would surprise me if Giuliani were to climb his way back up. I offer that assessment with this caveat, however: Floridians love their debates, and I write just hours before just such an event. Remember, the CNN/YouTube contest made Mike Huckabee a front-runner, at least for a while. It's possible it could do the same for Giuliani.
One final thought. If the Florida Republican primary ends up as close as it appears, keep in mind that any top two candidates within half a percentage point of each other means an automatic voter recount!
No, there won't be any "hanging chads" Tuesday night. Florida has had more than one round of election reform to prevent that catastrophe from repeating.
Still, it would be poetic justice for a vote-counting controversy to divide the Republican Party just eight years after George Bush became president after exactly that.
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