Mitt Romney, the Republican Party's only three-time winner in the presidential race, yesterday vaulted to the top of the polls in Florida, the Republican Party's next primary battle and a major springboard to Feb. 5, when 21 states across the nation hold contests.
The latest poll released by Rasmussen Reports put Mr. Romney at 25 percent, with Arizona Sen. John McCain at 20 percent and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani at 19 percent. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee slipped to 13 percent in the one-day poll, taken Sunday. A week ago, the Baptist preacher, who won Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses, was the tied for the lead at 17 percent with the three other candidates.
But the news, at least according to pollster Scott Rasmussen, wasn't all good for the former Massachusetts governor, who has won small contests in Wyoming, Nevada and his home state of Michigan but none of the major battles — Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, which has correctly picked the Republican nominee since 1980.
"Mitt Romney still needs to show he can win a competitive primary without a home field advantage. A Romney win in Florida would be a huge step forward in a campaign that has the makings of a marathon," Mr. Rasmussen said.
The news was dismal for Mr. Giuliani, who has been banking on a win in Florida to launch his campaign after skipping the first six presidential nomination contests. He got even more bad news yesterday: Another new poll shows him trailing in his home state, which he has long considered safe.
In New York, 34 percent of registered Republicans surveyed support Mr. McCain, compared with 23 percent for Mr. Giuliani, according to a WNBC-Marist poll conducted Jan. 15-17 — two days before Mr. McCain won South Carolina on Saturday.
The poll also showed 46 percent of registered Republicans think Mr. McCain is most likely to beat the Democratic candidate in November. On that question, Mr. Romney got 19 percent and Mr. Giuliani 15 percent.
Mr. Giuliani is trying to fire up a campaign that has been on ice all month as he waits for Florida, a state he thinks is tailor-made for his message. His strategy depends on a victory in Florida to build momentum into Feb. 5, when New York, New Jersey and California — all strong states for the moderate Republican known as "America's Mayor" — are the big prizes, along with a slew of smaller states.
"It's like going down to the fourth quarter: You know you're a really good fourth-quarter team — you got to score three touchdowns," Mr. Giuliani told The Washington Times on Saturday. But he added: "A loss, and a bad loss, could be crippling."
Mr. McCain has won two primaries, including the New Hampshire contest on Jan. 8, while Mr. Romney has won three and Mr. Huckabee took the nation's first contest Jan. 3 in Iowa.
But Mr. Rasmussen said yesterday that "Florida represents both a major challenge and a major opportunity for McCain."
"Both result from the fact that independent voters are not allowed to participate in Florida's Republican primary. In McCain's earlier victories, he has been competitive among Republican voters but won with the votes of independents," he said.
"If he is to win the GOP nomination, McCain must sooner or later show that he can win among Republicans. On the other hand, if McCain can win a Republican-only primary in Florida, he will have a major advantage heading into Super Tuesday a week later" on Feb. 5.