Fred Thompson has dropped out, but without endorsing John McCain. That's bad news for McCain and terrific news for Mike Huckabee. In SC, Thompson served as McCain's stalking horse, ripping into Huckabee and probably denying the Huckster a win in a state he needed pretty badly. For Big Mike, however, Big Fred's departure may be too late--Huckabee probably can't take Florida, and after that it will be tough with little money or organization.
Florida also appears to be setting up as a pretty decisive contest for the Republicans, although not in the same way that many pundits are predicting.
Here's our take: if McCain wins Florida, he will get the GOP nomination. Polls in northeastern states, including New York, show McCain leading Giuliani as of now. If Giuliani cannot pull out a win in Florida, or at least beat McCain (behind Romney), then McCain should have enough momentum to win several big contests along the East Coast on Super Duper Tuesday.
If Giuliani wins Florida, it vastly increases the likelihood of a deadlocked GOP convention. This is where we depart from many other pundits, who evidently buy into the Giuliani strategy that if he wins Florida he can somehow steamroll to victory. He can't, but he could win New York and New Jersey--both winner-take-all states--and do well enough in California to pick up a decent number of delegates.
But Giuliani's strategy of waiting so late, for a contest one week before roughly 20 states vote, was always flawed. Now he has to win Florida simply to stay alive, which is an unenviable position. If he does win, it won't be by much--hardly a mandate--but it will be sufficient to allow him to pick up enough delegates on Super Duper Tuesday to deny the nomination to McCain or Romney.
Perversely, if Romney wins Florida, and knocks Giuliani out, it may benefit McCain, at least for awhile. Romney needs Giuliani and McCain to duke it out over the Republican hawks, cancelling each other out, in order to win more states in a narrower contest. But whether Romney could take in enough delegates in a three-way race to win before the convention is doubtful. On the other hand, if it becomes a two-man race and anti-McCain Republicans go with Romney, he could definitely win it all.
And then there's Huckabee. We don't see how he can win at this point, even with Thompson out. Huckabee is the least likely of the four remaining candidates to capture Florida, which leaves him limping into Super Duper Tuesday. Still, if Giuliani wins and all four slog on to February 5, Huckabee could benefit from the split and capture wins in Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and maybe a couple other states.
So Florida sets this up: McCain wins, he probably has the nomination. Giuliani wins, no one has the nomination. Romney wins, it becomes a two-man fight, in which Republicans have to decide which candidate they find the least objectionable. And if Huckabee wins we ought to quit blogging (but we won't).