WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Rudy Giuliani’s White House quest could be in deep trouble as he lags far behind the leaders in a Florida presidential primary he counted on winning, according to a Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll released on Tuesday.
Hours before the start of Florida’s voting, Arizona Sen. John McCain held a slim 4-point lead over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, 35 percent to 31 percent, in what was essentially a two-man race, the poll found.
Giuliani, the former New York mayor, was battling former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for a distant third place finish in Florida. Both registered 13 percent.
The margin of error in the poll was 3.3 percentage points.
Giuliani had staked his campaign on a strong Florida showing after pulling out of other early voting states, but he has drifted down in national and state polls for weeks as the drama of an intensely contested Republican race passed him by.
“The race has become a two-man race, and Giuliani is just not a factor,” said pollster John Zogby.
Giuliani, on several early morning news shows, said he still believed he would win in Florida and was not contemplating dropping from the race if he lost the state.
“Our desire tonight is to win. We’re not looking at some second or third place finish. We’re looking at a win tonight,” Giuliani said on Fox News.
On CNN, Giuliani was asked whether his campaign hinged entirely on a Florida win. “I would never put it that way but I think it’s real important,” he said. “We had early voting here, we think we did very well in the early voting but our real objective now is to get the vote out today. We think the votes are there.”
McCain and Romney have dominated the headlines in Florida with a heated battle over who is best prepared to rescue a struggling economy and lead a nation at war, shoving Giuliani and Huckabee aside.
No Republican has been able to grab the front-runner’s role in a seesawing Republican race to represent the party in November’s presidential election.
McCain and Romney have split the last four nominating contests, as McCain won in South Carolina and New Hampshire and Romney won in Michigan and Nevada. Huckabee earlier won the kick-off contest in Iowa.
The winner in Florida will gain valuable momentum heading into the February 5 “Super Tuesday” voting, when 21 states will have Republican nominating contests in a sprawling coast-to-coast battle.
McCain has made gains since his endorsement on Saturday by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. They have largely come among the core conservative Republican voters who make up about half the sample and half the Florida primary electorate.
Among self-described conservatives, McCain has now opened a 7-point lead to go with the sizable lead he already held among moderates. Romney still leads overwhelmingly among likely voters who describe themselves as very conservative.
“It does appear the Crist endorsement helped McCain considerably among conservatives,” Zogby said.
The decline by Giuliani, who led national polls for much of the year until he started a late slide, could be tracked in the survey.
About 64 percent of his supporters said they decided more than a month ago, while 20 percent decided about a month ago, 10 percent decided a week ago and just 6 percent decided in the last few days.
About 5 percent of Florida voters are still undecided about their choice.
Florida Democrats also will hold a primary, but a dispute with their national party over the contest’s date cost the state its delegates to their national convention and led presidential contenders to pledge they would not campaign there.
Hillary Clinton, a New York senator who was crushed in South Carolina on Saturday by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, said she would go to Florida to greet supporters after voting ends — technically honoring the pledge.
The rolling poll of 941 likely Republican voters was taken on Sunday and Monday. In a rolling poll, the most recent day’s results are added while the oldest day’s results are dropped in order to track changing momentum.
(Additional reporting by Vicki Allen; editing by Mohammad Zargham)
For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/