FixCam: Republican Debate Preview
Tonight's Republican debate in Florida is the last time the top-tier candidates will share a stage before the Sunshine State's increasingly critical primary on Tuesday.
Two independent polls released in the last 24 hours seem to cast the Florida race as a two-man affair between Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. A St. Petersburg Times poll put McCain at 25 percent to Romney's 23 percent; former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee took 15 percent each. A Mason-Dixon survey for the Orlando Sentinel put Romney in the lead at 30 percent, followed by McCain at 26 percent, Giuliani at 18 percent and Huckabee at 13 percent.
With those polls as a backdrop, here's what we expect to hear out of the four leading candidates tonight:
* John McCain: The nominal frontrunner heading into tonight's debate, McCain would love for the 90 minutes to pass without any news being made. To date, McCain's rivals for the nomination have largely avoided attacking him in any direct manner and, when Romney has gone at McCain, Huckabee and Giuliani (as well as former candidate Fred Thompson) have leapt to the Arizona senator's defense. If that dynamic holds tonight, McCain will be sitting pretty heading into Florida's vote on Tuesday and the Feb. 5 primaries to follow.
* Mitt Romney: Given the ups and down of the stock market in recent days, much of the debate will likely be spent on economic issues -- Romney's wheelhouse. When The Post conducted focus groups in Iowa back in mid-December, Romney's experience in the private sector was mentioned favorably time and again by the participants. Expect Romney to hit hard on the idea that he alone in the field has had to manage a business and, in his words, "know why jobs come and why they go." The x-factor for Romney is how Huckabee and Giuliani treat him. Will they gang up on him as they have in debates past? Or help him drive the attack against McCain?
* Rudy Giuliani: Hizzoner's Florida firewall is failing if you believe the two polls cited above. Giuliani showed there is still some life in his campaign by putting up an ad on television that distinguishes him as the only top-tier candidate in favor of the National Catastrophe Fund. (We bashed Giuliani in this space yesterday for making this a Web-only ad at first.) Giuliani must put aside his personal distaste for drawing stark contrasts and tell viewers tonight why he is the best choice for Florida. Short of that, it may be one and done for America's Mayor.
* Mike Huckabee: Although Huckabee insists he is "in it to win it" when it comes to Florida's primary, the facts on the ground tell a different story. He has a skeleton organization in the state and has yet to run a single television commercial there. Huckabee's focus seems to be on emerging as the southern conservative in the field heading into Feb. 5, a task made far easier when Thompson dropped from the race earlier this week. Huckabee will likely focus heavily on his southern roots and social conservative views tonight to make a play for voters in places like Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Alabama -- all of which vote on Feb. 5.
Make sure to check this space later tonight for updates and thoughts from the proceedings. The debate gets started at 9 p.m. ET on MSNBC.
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