McCain the man to beat, while Giuliani wonders if Florida gamble has backfired

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The Independent US

Republican candidates for the White House are headed for a showdown in Florida following John McCain's weekend victory in South Carolina, which gave momentum to his cause.

A few months ago, Rudy Giuliani was the man to beat in the Republican race. But his gamble to sit out the early caucuses and primaries and stake everything on the Sunshine State on 29 January may have backfired. "The hero of 9/11" has seen his national security mantle pass to Mr McCain, whose enthusiasm for US military adventures knows few bounds.

Increasingly seen as yesterday's man, Mr Giuliani's only hope of survival is a victory in Florida, the fourth-largest state, where he has been campaigning for months. Curiously, however, the polls show the more time he has spent there, the less support he receives.

There are major obstacles ahead for both men in Florida, most notably from Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who won the Nevada Republican contest on Saturday. At a time when the US economy is spiralling into recession, Mr Romney has great appeal to conservatives, combining a brilliant track record as a businessman with the winning smile of a salesman. He promises to restore the US economy to health with discipline over government spending combined with tax cuts.

"Florida is the showdown state," the Republican pollster Neil Newhouse has predicted. "It's shaping up to be a microcosm of the party: part Southern, part Northern, part Republican establishment, part evangelical."

Early in the race Mr Romney's campaign was by far the most organised and he picked up an important endorsement from Florida's former governor Jeb Bush. He also spent more than $3m (£1.5m) on television ads. Then came the early blows of Iowa and New Hampshire, where he trailed in second. But with a win in Michigan, Mr Romney's campaign suddenly got back on track, as he persuaded voters that he alone had the wherewithal to revive the economy and "fix Washington".

Then there is Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas with the populist touch, who represents the fiercely devout Christian base of the party. His appeal is to the common man, now hurting in the economic downturn and feeling ignored and helpless.

"There must be room in the Republican Party for the man who carries a paint bucket or a hammer," Mr Huckabee said as he left South Carolina to take his quixotic campaign south.

Mr McCain is now in the lead in both the Florida and national polls, and Saturday's South Carolina victory is expected to give his numbers another bump. But he now faces opposition from Republicans who care deeply about issues such as illegal immigration and abortion. He has had a moderate, even enlightened approach to these issues, but has had to change tack.

If Mr Giuliani continues to fade, it is expected to benefit Mr McCain, as both appeal to the same voters by wrapping themselves in the American flag and projecting themselves as hawks in the battle against Islamic extremism at a time when the US is at war. One disadvantage Mr McCain faces in Florida is that unlike in South Carolina, independent voters cannot simply show up and participate in the state primary.

But hoping to capture the heavily Republican Cuban-American community, whose leaders are divided among the candidates, he is heading to Little Havana to make his pitch.

All Republican candidates have natural constituencies in Florida. Mr Huckabee's evangelical base is in the Florida panhandle from Pensacola to Jacksonville, the most conservative part of the state and closest to the values of the Old South. On the Gulf coast, Mr Romney is expected to appeal to the wealthier communities of retirees from the Mid West. In urban areas of Tampa and Jacksonville where there are large military bases, McCain is expected to appeal.

Mr Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, was expected to clean up among the many millions of transplanted New Yorkers, but if the predictions are correct those votes will now be distributed among the other three candidates.