Whoever wins here will get a shot of momentum going into Tsunami Tuesday, the 21 primaries and caucuses around the country on Feb. 5, with 41 percent of the total GOP delegates in play. Floridians know their vote matters: Between the two major parties, nearly a million people either voted early or cast absentee ballots, a sign of the hotly contested races on both sides.
For Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York who has staked his candidacy on doing very well here, if not winning, his only hope rests on having banked lots of early votes when the polling places first opened Jan. 14 and he was still competitive in the polls, analysts say.
In the past two weeks, Mr. Giuliani's numbers have tanked. On Monday, McCain led Romney by 0.8 percent – both around 30 percent, and well inside the margin of error – in the RealClearPolitics.com average of recent polls, while Giuliani was at 16 percent.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who made a splash early this month by winning the Iowa GOP caucuses, appears to be near the end of his trail, with just 13 percent of the Florida Republican vote. About 23 percent of Florida voters self-identify as evangelical, and Mr. Huckabee is winning that group with 35 percent, but Romney is drawing a fair share, 20 percent, according to the latest Mason-Dixon poll.
Another important demographic group in Florida is the military, either retired or active, which combined represent 29 percent of the GOP vote. McCain would seem a natural fit for them, given his storied past as a Vietnam POW. But analysts warn against making assumptions.