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Image: John McCain
Don Emmert  /  AFP - Getty Images
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain bites his tongue as he answers reporters' questions during a campaign stop in Orlando, Florida.
By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 1/24/2008 8:53:07 AM ET 2008-01-24T13:53:07

The ever-shrinking Republican presidential field meets for potentially the last time as a 5-way contest on Thursday night here in Florida.

Broadcast live on MSNBC and streamed on msnbc.com from 9-10:30 p.m. EST, the debate will be moderated by NBC’s Brian Williams. He will be joined by Tim Russert, as well as St. Petersburg Times editor Paul Tash.

It is the only debate before the state’s crucial Jan. 29 primary. And there’s a do-or-die feel to it.

One tries to avoid the prediction game, particularly this campaign  season, and yet all signs point to this debate being one of the most contentious of the cycle for the GOP.

Why? If the candidates don't stop McCain now, they never will.

There's still no frontrunner in the GOP contest but there is a candidate in the “momentum slot.” It's my way of labeling the candidate who is just short of being the frontrunner.

Third place in a NASCAR race
Every one of the field (even a candidate who just dropped out) has spent time in this slot. It's kind of like being in 3rd place in a NASCAR race. You've got plenty of opportunity to take the lead and can even  do it for a lap or two, but the ideal is to sit back and wait for the opportunity to draft.

That way when you take the lead, you push the other candidates so far back they can't catch you.

John McCain's in this “momentum slot,” just one win away from truly becoming the frontrunner.

And don't think Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani don't know this. Both  campaigns will privately admit that neither of them will be the nominee without winning Florida.

Romney's got two options:

  • First, he could win Florida outright and set up a long-term delegate showdown with McCain. He'd likely have the upper hand in this case thanks to bottomless pockets;
  • And second, Giuliani could win, in which case the race is muddied up even longer.

With McCain on the cusp of going from a near-dead candidacy to the GOP nominee (with a Florida victory helping him wrap up the race on Feb. 5), this final debate is perhaps the last chance his opponents have to produce negative information about him.

On one hand, Florida should be a great state for McCain. It's not as much Southern as it is Sunbelt, like a really big Arizona.

In addition, the state boasts lots of veterans – mostly transplants – and Florida Republicans understand the idea of electability.

Add to that the information gathered from the South Carolina exit poll Saturday. Notice how well McCain did with his peer age group (65+)? He won the group by nearly 20 points.

Last time I checked, Florida had its share of those over 65. So a patch to 35% (the number any winner of this primary is going to need) seems pretty easy.

On the other hand, the Florida primary also could be the one that plays host to a very conservative electorate.

The primary is only open to registered Republicans and so far, John McCain has not fared well, according to the exits, among registered Republicans. He actually lost Republicans by a point in South Carolina (his margin among independents put him over the top).

And while he won Republicans narrowly in New Hampshire, again, it was independents that gave McCain his margin over Romney.

Clearly, Mitt Romney's folks believe they have a winning strategy for Florida and it's two-fold:

  • First, hope that Rudy Giuliani's camping out in the state has helped  the New Yorker bank some of the early votes (the state allows for early voting) thus keeping that moderate bloc away from McCain;
  • And second, remind rank-and-file Republicans why they used to dislike McCain.

Romney's operation in Florida should not be underestimated. He's got many of Jeb Bush's best political aides behind him and he may tacitly have Jeb behind him as well.

But that's pure speculation on my part.

However, if you read some of the things Jeb has said about Romney versus what he’s said about the other candidates, it's clear with whom Jeb has a lot in common.

He sees more of himself in Romney: He too is a former governor with a problem solving business background who is more of an ideological social conservative than the rest of the field.

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Of course, Jeb's social conservative credentials are stronger than Romney's, which is why Romney is not the frontrunner today.

So can Romney stop McCain in Florida?

As I’ve said, his opportunity is now, and it’s here.

It's a friendly electorate. Couple that with the shift of focus from the war to the economy and Romney's got his chance.

As for McCain, Florida also presents his best chance to become the nominee. A win here and this race is over.

He's ahead in a many of the Northeastern winner-take-all states with primaries on Feb. 5. Those leads in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will be cemented if McCain wins Florida.

That gives McCain a major delegate leg up against any remaining challengers, like Romney. 

The momentum McCain would get out of a Florida victory would also vault him ahead in many other states, including California, with its massive number of delegates.

McCain has many powerful voices trying to stop him but none of these voices is as loud as they were 9 months ago when it appeared the conservatives had successfully stopped a McCain nomination.

Now conservatives from Rush Limbaugh to Grover Norquist are staring at  the likelihood of having to rally around someone they've made a living criticizing, at least over the past few years. Talk about a shotgun wedding; Only a Hillary Clinton Democratic nomination will be able to keep these folks at peace for the rest of this year.

Still, look for a number of conservative shots to be taken at McCain in  Thursday's MSNBC debate.

Video: Reporters on life on campaign trail

Romney will try to reinforce the criticism that at the end of the day, McCain won't always do what's in the best interest of the party.

Of course, that criticism from some on the right is what makes McCain so potentially electable. He may appeal to independents in the general election. But it makes for a messy primary fight.

The third candidate desperate to do well in Florida is Giuliani. 

Will we see a desperate or aggressive Rudy in Thursday's debate? Frankly, he has no choice.

His chances for the Republican nomination are dropping like a rock. He needs a Florida win just to stay in the game and muddy up the race enough to give himself a shot.

Even then, it's a dicey situation for Giuliani since a Florida win could be partially dismissed, a la Michigan for Romney and New Hampshire for McCain.

A Giuliani win puts the GOP race back to square one with 3 and a 1/2 candidates left vying for the actual nomination, the half being Huckabee.

Huckabee was dealt a serious blow when he lost evangelical-heavy South Carolina. He's looking more and more like a niche candidate who desperately needs to get on the national ticket if he has hope of being a serious contender in 2012 or 2016.

The stakes have never been higher. Desperation is in the air. All of the candidates desperately need a win in Florida and all of them need to make a mark on Thursday night.

The debate will also air on many of NBC's broadcast affiliates in Florida.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: GOP hopefuls brace for debate

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