High Stakes in Florida Debate

Salena Zito

1/24/2008 3:56:11 PM - Salena Zito

ORLANDO, Fla. -- MSNBC hosts a Republican debate in Boca Raton this evening. What's at stake? Everything but the kitchen sink is at stake as four candidates vie to claim the biggest chunk of delegates yet.

Debate viewers can expect to see the candidates trying to appeal to the melting pot of conservative Republicans who inhabit the Sunshine State.

The Florida Republican demographics are unique. It's a Southern state, with a substantial Northeastern and Midwestern influence, and a healthy voting block of evangelicals to boot.

Florida is also the first state with a closed primary, which means there will be no surprise influx of undecided voters or independent voters supporting more moderate candidates.

Democratic voters won't get to see their candidates in person or participating in a debate before the primary election.

No Democratic candidates have committed to take part in a debate or visit the state because of the state's decision to move up its primary before the approved Feb. 5 "Super Duper Tuesday."

Because of this, the Democratic National Committee has stripped the state of its delegates. The Republican National Committee only slapped the Republicans' wrists by taking away half.

But Floridians will see plenty of Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, John McCain and Mitt Romney trying to win over undecided voters tonight in a presidential primary campaign without a clear front-runner.

The 90-minute debate begins at 9 on MSNBC.

In a Miami Herald-St. Petersburg Times poll released Wednesday, Giuliani was tied for third with Huckabee at 15 percent, behind McCain with 25 percent and Romney with 23 percent.

“Rudy has a chance to prove his mettle tonight after being relatively invisible on the national stage for the past few weeks,” said GOP strategist Charlie Gerow.

“John McCain has an opportunity to solidify his position as the front-runner and show his leadership skills and experience in a convincing manner,” Gerow added.

“Huckabee will use his personal charm and populist appeal to shore up his base, it’s important that he now show that he can reach voters outside his comfort zone.”

The big question, Gerow says, is "who will pick up the votes that would have gone to Thompson?”

“Huckabee maybe, but more than likely, it will be Romney,” Gerow said.

Gerow says that Romney is polished and effective, but what Romney needs to demonstrate is “that he is the best manager of the bunch and has the experience in business to most effectively deal with a shaky economy.”

“Some debates aren’t vital ... tonight’s is.”

“The stakes are high, the field has narrowed, and the focus and scrutiny will be more intense.”