As the presidential nomination battles head into their next venues - Florida for the Republicans, South Carolina for the Democrats - candidates on both sides have much to prove.
And while neither contest will decide its party's nomination, both will provide clues.
In the GOP race, Florida's primary on Jan. 29 will be the first time all the candidates are competing in full. John McCain needs to show that he can win registered Republicans. So far, the Arizona senator has won two key primaries - New Hampshire and South Carolina - on the backs of independent voters. But in Florida and many of the 20-plus "Super Tuesday" contests on Feb. 5, the primaries are "closed" - registered Republicans only. If Senator McCain wins Florida, he will be the GOP front-runner, analysts say.
Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has now won three contests - Wyoming, Michigan, and Nevada - but only Michigan was competitive. Mr. Romney has yet to register in national polls as a top contender, but a win in Florida would catapult him into the upper ranks, analysts say. And his personal fortune frees him from the money challenge faced by McCain. The question for Romney is whether the message of economic optimism that played well in his native state, recession-hit Michigan, can win in Florida and beyond.
Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and a favorite among Evangelicals, has not won a race since the Iowa caucuses. He trails in funding and organization, but in a state where about 25 percent of GOP voters are evangelical, he cannot be counted out completely.
Then there's Rudolph Giuliani. The former New York mayor spent most of 2007 atop national polls, only to see that lead fade as he gave up on the early contests and put all his focus on Florida, the nation's fourth-largest state and home to many transplanted New Yorkers. So far, at least part of the gamble has paid off: There is no clear front-runner among Republicans, and the field is crowded; add to the mix libertarian favorite Rep. Ron Paul and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee. So even a modest plurality of votes could win Florida. And win he must, analysts say.
"It's do or die for Rudy," says Del Ali, an independent pollster whose survey of Florida last week shows a tight race there. "I don't think a close second counts. But if he wins, it gets crazier than it is now."
Among the Democrats, where the race is effectively a three- person contest, Hillary Rodham Clinton gained momentum by winning the Nevada caucuses last Saturday. But perhaps more important, the demographics of the New York senator's win demonstrated in stark terms the challenge faced by her Senate colleague, Barack Obama of Illinois. …