In Florida, GOP Sniping Takes Center Stage

John McCain Mitt Romney
This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

During last Thursday's collegial Republican presidential debate in Boca Raton, it appeared that a kinder, gentler Republican field - one suddenly content to leave the squabbling to the Democrats - might be emerging.

Fat chance.

The Republican contenders, particularly Mitt Romney and John McCain, have gone on the attack in the days leading up to Tuesday's Florida primary, trading accusations of flip-flopping, liberalism and lack of leadership.

McCain has said Romney has "consistently flip-flopped on every issue" and referred to his rival as "the liberal governor of Massachusetts." Romney has suggested McCain has set the country on "a liberal Democrat course" and called McCain's statements on Romney's Iraq war position "simply wrong" and "dishonest."

Meanwhile, Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has staked his campaign on success in Florida, has largely avoided criticism. But political watchers don't see that as good news.

"He isn't perceived as being a threat at this point," said political consultant Garrett Biggs.

Tuesday's Florida primary is the final contest before "Super Tuesday" on Feb 5th, when 24 states will hold primaries or caucuses. Though this campaign season has sometimes defied traditional ideas about the importance of momentum, the candidate who comes out on top in the state is expected to get a boost shortly before what is, in terms of delegates, the most important day in the campaign season.

"There's no doubt that whoever wins Florida is on the yellow brick road to the White House," said state Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer.

For Giuliani, Florida could mean the end of the road. The former mayor has faded in national polls as he has suffered a series of bad losses in early states, and he desperately needs a win in Florida to reinvigorate his sputtering campaign. Polls show him in third or fourth place in the state.

Giuliani, who was the Florida frontrunner just two months ago, has tried to stake out the high road as his rivals have squabbled. "If you listen to my opponents, it's getting kind of nasty," Giuliani said in Orlando on Saturday. "I'm going to try to remain positive."

But in the wake of McCain's political recovery and Giuliani's decision to mostly sit out the early contests, the former mayor goes into the primary once described as his "firewall" as a significant underdog.

"McCain and Giuliani share support from more moderate Republicans," said Tallahassee-based political consultant Brett Doster. "You've got a mathematical issue where they're splitting the moderate base, whereas Romney has received the benefit of people like Fred Thompson and Duncan Hunter dropping out. You're left with one conservative and two sort-of moderates."

Iowa caucuses winner Mike Huckabee, who will split some of the conservative vote with Romney, was until recently focused on the South Carolina primary, in which he came in second place. Huckabee did not open a campaign office in Florida until last week, and because of his limited financial resources he has not been able to air ads in the state.

McCain and Romney, who sit atop Florida polls, hope that a win will transform them into the clear national front-runner. Both have something to prove: McCain wants to show that he can win in a closed primary, without the help of independent voters, while Romney seeks to demonstrate that he can win a primary or caucus without a built-in advantage. His wins thus far have come in states where he has either faced little competition (Nevada, Wyoming) or had a family connection (Michigan).

For many Floridians, last Thursday's debate was something of an introduction to the candidates, and they all seemed determined to make a good first impression.

"Romney and McCain and even Giuliani know that their best chance to win this thing it to transcend the nasty aspect of this race and appear very presidential," said Doster.

But sniping between the rivals came not long after the post-debate handshakes. On Saturday, McCain said Romney wants to do the same thing as Hillary Clinton with regard to Iraq: "Wave a white flag." He also suggested that Romney "wanted to set a date for withdrawal that would have meant disaster." The former Massachusetts governor called on McCain to apologize for the comments.