Presidential hopefuls battle in US south / Giuliani looks headed for free fall in Florida

The first primaries in the southern states of South Carolina and Florida over the next few days will be crucial for presidential hopefuls on both sides of the political divide in the United States. US bureau chief Derwin Pereira looks at how both races are shaping up.

REPUBLICANS

FLORIDA was supposed to be “Rudy Country”. But no more.

Just four days before the presidential nominating contest in the country’s fourth-largest state, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani – who once led the Republican field in Florida and nationally – appears to be heading for a free fall.

After sitting out the earlier primaries in a high-risk strategy, he finds himself trailing his rivals in this state despite focusing exclusively on it over the past month.

The latest polls in Florida suggest that he has lost the commanding lead that he once held.

A survey by the Miami Herald showed Arizona senator John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney going neck-and-neck for the lead, with 25 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively. Mr Giuliani and Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee were far behind at 15 per cent.

Another survey on Thursday by independent polling firm Mason-Dixon had Mr Romney with 30 per cent and Mr McCain with 26 per cent, while Mr Giuliani had 18 per cent.

Mr Giuliani seemed undeterred that his campaign was imploding, saying: “We are going to accomplish it against the odds.”

But his chances are slim in a state that is the most important contest on the calendar to date for the Republican Party.

It is a springboard to Super Tuesday, the near-national primary on Feb 5 where 22 states will hold nominating contests.

Mr Giuliani might have miscalculated badly by putting all his chips on Florida.

Thus far, the 2008 race has given little evidence that victory in one state has given a Republican – or Democrat – candidate a lift going into the next one.

Nevertheless, three Republican candidates are coming into Florida with some momentum because they won elsewhere.

Unlike the others, Mr Giuliani has yet to be tested in battle.

So far, Mr McCain has won New Hampshire and South Carolina, Mr Romney has taken

Wyoming, Nevada and Michigan while Mr Huckabee has come in first in Iowa. Florida is a regionally – and ideologically – diverse state and the contest will mark the first time in the primaries that all the Republican candidates will be competing together.

Each of the candidates has a natural constituency in the state. In the rock-solid, conservative northern portion of the state that borders Georgia and Alabama, Mr Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, will bring his message mixing cultural conservatism and economic populism.

Mr Romney is targeting the south-west portion of Florida, which is home to many immigrants from the mid-west.

About 40 per cent of this state’s Republican voters have ties to the military, a group that has repeatedly proved supportive of Mr McCain, a Vietnam War veteran. That was especially true in South Carolina.

Mr Giuliani hopes to capture the large number of expatriate New Yorkers in South Florida. He is also eyeing Cuban-Americans who make up 10 per cent of Republican voters in the state.

Despite the obstacles, Mr Giuliani maintained that he would win Florida next Tuesday, and said his strategy of focusing on the state will prove to be the right one.

“This is truly a marathon, and you’ve got to remain focused on it that way and not get too upset about the things that go wrong or too excited about the things that go right,” he said.

The New York Times on Thursday placed another stumbling block in his path, lashing out in editorials on the newspaper’s website that he had exploited “the horror of 9/11” for his presidential campaign.

The editorials endorsed Mrs Hillary Clinton and Mr McCain in the presidential primary race.

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