MIAMI — One state now stands between an elbow-to-elbow Republican field and the Feb. 5 voting sweepstakes that could cinch the party's presidential nomination: Florida.
John McCain's hard-fought win Saturday in South Carolina, along with his come-from-behind victory in New Hampshire, put him in an enviable position heading into another Southern state.
But unlike South Carolina, McCain-leaning independent voters can't vote in Florida's Jan. 29 primary, and the heavily Republican Cuban-American community looms as one of the biggest prizes in the nation's fourth-largest state.
McCain plans to kick off his Florida tour Monday at the landmark Versailles restaurant in Little Havana, then head to Jacksonville and Pensacola, where the Vietnam War hero can tap a large population of military retirees and their families.
"This is huge because it's all about the momentum, and that's what we'll ride on, though we're not going to take Florida for granted," said campaign spokeswoman Melissa Shuffield of McCain's victory in South Carolina. "We're aggressively campaigning in the Sunshine State and we fully expect we can win.''
Florida polls conducted before the South Carolina GOP primary predicted a knock-down, drag-out fight, with McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani edging Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, who finished second in South Carolina. In a race without a clear front-runner, Florida's verdict could help seal the deal a week before Republican voters go to the polls in 19 states.
After a campaign mostly waged in smaller states where voters get a chance to quiz candidates at diners and town squares, the Republican contest moves into larger, media-driven states such as Florida, New York and California. So far, Giuliani and Romney are the only candidates who've been able to afford television ads in Florida, where one week of airtime can cost $1 million.
But emboldened by the South Carolina vote, McCain's camp, which pulled out of Florida last summer after running out of money, can make a stronger case to donors. McCain has five fundraisers scheduled in the state over the nine days between Monday and Jan. 29.
For Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and a Baptist preacher, the failure to capture a fellow Southern state rich with evangelical voters was a major setback. He's also facing a money crunch, though three Florida fundraisers are in the works. Huckabee is tentatively scheduled to arrive in Florida on Monday and to tour the state by bus.
"Nothing is in stone. This is still a fluid field,'' said state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican and Huckabee supporter. "And Florida is a totally different animal.''
For Giuliani, the next 10 days will determine whether his strategy of ignoring the smaller states and focusing almost exclusively on Florida will work. His longtime lead in Florida has evaporated, but he boasts the largest staff and the most visits to the state.
It's unclear whether Fred Thompson will move on to Florida, where polls show him trailing in fifth place. Despite campaigning nonstop in South Carolina for the past two weeks, he finished a distant third.
"We're still operating as if he's coming to Florida," said Miami political consultant Carlos Curbelo. "We're doing phone banks, we have people walking and we're trying to raise money."
The Democratic candidates have vowed not to campaign in the state because its early primary broke national party rules, and the state's delegates won't count at the nominating convention.
The latest Florida Democratic polls have been mixed, with several showing Clinton retaining a longtime lead and others suggesting that Barack Obama is closing the gap.
In a sign that the Obama campaign wants to tamp down expectations in Florida, it issued a memo this week declaring that Florida's votes won't matter because of the loss of delegates. Clinton is slated to attend two fundraisers in Miami Beach on Jan. 27, but has said that she won't break her pledge not to make public appearances.
(Reinhard and Clark report for The Miami Herald.)