ST. PETERSBURG, Florida (CNN) -- The Sunshine State takes center stage Wednesday night in the race for the White House as eight Republican presidential candidates face off in the party's first CNN/YouTube debate.
The Republican hopefuls will face off Wednesday in a CNN/YouTube debate, just as Democrats did in July.
With five weeks and one day to go until the first votes are cast in the race for the White House, the stakes could hardly be higher.
The candidates will be fielding video questions submitted by the public via the YouTube Web site, just as Democratic White House hopefuls did in July.
If you've noticed, and it's hard not to, an edgy battle for the GOP presidential nomination has turned even testier the past few days.
One reason for the bad blood is that the Republican race is still very much up for grabs, and the clock's ticking. Rudy Giuliani's the front-runner in the national polls, but the former New York City mayor is not the one leading the polls in most of the early primary states.
That candidate would be Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor is ahead in state surveys in Iowa and New Hampshire. The Iowa caucuses, which will be held on January 3, kick off the presidential primary season. New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first primary, votes five days later.
Add to that a new twist in Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor is moving up in the polls in Iowa and is now within striking distance of Romney. Watch disagreement over how to revive GOP brand »
"The GOP race is very much in flux right now. That's why elbows are out," said CNN Senior Political Analyst Gloria Borger.
"Romney, who thought he had a lock on Iowa and New Hampshire, is now looking in his rearview mirror and seeing others. Huckabee is a threat in Iowa, and anything can happen after that in New Hampshire."
Romney's been the front runner in Iowa for months, thanks the large amount of time and money he's spent in the state. Romney, as expected, won a Republican straw poll held in Iowa in August. But stealing the headlines was Huckabee, who finished a strong second.
"Rudy Giuliani is not a major player in Iowa since he, along with John McCain, skipped the straw poll. But Giuliani is undoubtedly cheering Mike Huckabee on," said CNN's other senior political analyst, Bill Schneider.
"If Huckabee overtakes Mitt Romney in Iowa, it will be a serious, perhaps devastating, blow to Giuliani's toughest competitor."
Wednesday's debate is the first time the GOP White House hopefuls have faced off on the same stage in over a month. Watch voters submit questions from Argentina, a plane and a dollar bill »
Since then the tough talk between Giuliani and Romney has intensified, and the campaigns of former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and Huckabee have continued pushing their way into the picture.
"The debate Wednesday night will be a three-ring circus. In the center ring, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney continue their smack down," Schneider said.
"In the second ring, Mike Huckabee tries to duck as his competitors throw brickbats at him, trying to expose his record in Arkansas as un-conservative.
"In ring three: Fred Thompson and John McCain try to grab the spotlight with some daring moves on the trapeze. There is also a sideshow: Ron Paul. Step right up, folks," says Schneider. Watch questions from the road, a talking skull and a man who doesn't know which way is up »
The CNN/YouTube debate also puts Florida in the political spotlight. The Sunshine State is used to playing a decisive role in the general election. Who can forget the Florida vote-count faceoff between George W. Bush and Al Gore after the 2000 election?
But Florida hasn't played a crucial role in primary politics in a generation. That's changing. Now that the state's moved up the date of its primary to January 29, Florida has become a primary player. Wednesday's debate will be the third presidential showdown held in Florida this year.
Adding to Florida's importance is what follows its primary. Florida is the last state to vote before Super Tuesday. That comes one week later, on February 5, with contests in more than 20 states from coast to coast, including California, Illinois and New York.
Florida is also crucial for Giuliani. It could be his political firewall if he loses the contests in the states that vote first.
Giuliani has led in all recent polls of Republican Floridians, including a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Tuesday. That poll of the state's likely Republican primary voters put Giuliani 21 points ahead of Romney, his nearest rival.
"Florida is a pivotal state. It comes before the Super Tuesday primaries of February 5th, and it's a very vital state to Giuliani campaign," said Bill McCollum, Florida's attorney general and Giuliani's state campaign chairman.
But the Giuliani campaign may be changing its strategy.
"As for Giuliani, he seems to be rethinking his Super Tuesday strategy," said Borger. "He knows that if Romney wins in Iowa and New Hampshire his momentum could be too great to stop. So expect a real fight on Wednesday night. These men are not going to leave anything unspoken."
The questions they will field in the groundbreaking format won't come from journalists. Instead, they are user-generated content from ordinary people.
CNN anchor and debate moderator Anderson Cooper and a team of CNN political journalists have been poring through the nearly 5,000 video questions that were recorded and submitted through YouTube. Watch voters use Abe Lincoln, Uncle Sam and Santa Claus to ask their questions »
It's only the second time such a debate has taken place. The Democratic candidates faced in July in Charleston, South Carolina, in a similar format. That debate christened YouTube as a venue for prodding politicians and a way to get the public directly involved.
While the format is the same for the Republican candidates, don't expect to hear similar questions.
"This debate is to let Republican voters pick from among their eight candidates," said David Bohrman, Washington bureau chief and senior vice president for CNN. "We are trying to focus mostly on questions where there are differences among these candidates."
The format of this debate is all new to the Republican presidential hopefuls, and that's part of the excitement. The candidates and their campaigns have no idea exactly what to expect.
"There is some sense of the unknown, and so they're going to be a little bit out of their normal comfort zone, which is a good thing," Bohrman said. E-mail to a friend
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