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GOP contenders fight for Florida

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  • Democrats stripped of Florida delegates
  • Florida earns reputation as key battleground state in 2000 presidential election
  • Giuliani largely skips early voting states to focus on Florida and February 5
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(CNN) -- The Republican White House hopefuls have their eyes set on Florida, while the Democratic contenders are looking ahead to next week's Super Tuesday contests.

Sen. John McCain, coming off a South Carolina win, is hoping his momentum will stay strong in Florida.

The Democratic Party stripped Florida of its delegates as a way of penalizing the state for moving its primary from mid-March to early January.

After the sanctions, the party's major presidential candidates agreed not to formally campaign in the state.

The Republicans barred half of Florida's delegates to the convention, leaving the GOP candidates fighting for the 57 delegates still at stake.

Florida has a closed primary, meaning only registered party members may vote in their own party's primary.

Recent polls show Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in a tight race for first.

McCain received a boost Saturday when Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist endorsed him.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who largely skipped the early voting states, has focused almost all of his attention on Florida and the 20-plus states holding contests February 5.

Giuliani appears to be in third place in Florida, ahead of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, according to recent surveys.

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Huckabee has campaigned in Florida, but he's also spent time stumping in some of the southern states that will vote on Super Tuesday. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is also concentrating on Super Tuesday contests.

Nearly 1 million Florida voters have already cast their ballots through early voting and absentee ballots -- a sign the state will likely experience a record turnout despite the meaningless Democratic contest.

According to the Florida Secretary of State's office, more than 474,000 Republicans and just more than 400,000 Democrats have already voted.

An additional 109,000 voters have already voted on a property-tax amendment on this year's ballot.

Early voting began January 14 and ended Sunday. The nearly 1 million Floridians who have voted early rivals the 1.3 million total voters who participated in the state's 2000 primary -- the last time both parties held a contested primary.

Political landscape

Florida earned its reputation as a key battleground state in the controversial 2000 presidential election, when both George Bush and Al Gore received 49 percent of the vote.

In 2004, President Bush improved his performance in Florida, winning 52 percent to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's 47 percent.

Close elections in Florida are often decided among voters in the crucial "I-4" corridor stretching from St. Petersburg to Daytona Beach. This pivotal region also covers Tampa, Orlando, Lakeland and Cape Canaveral.

Ordinarily, Republican candidates run best in the western panhandle (Pensacola and Panama City), Orange County (Orlando), and the southern Gulf Coast (especially Fort Myers and Naples), and in Miami's Cuban-American community.

The Democratic base is centralized in the so-called "Gold Coast" communities of West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale (Broward County), Miami (Dade County), and in both Tallahassee and the minority communities of the panhandle.

A solid majority (58 percent) of GOP primary voters in 2000 were self-identified conservatives. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Robert Yoon, Alan Silverleib, Paul Steinhauser, Alexander Mooney and Shirley Zilberstein contributed to this report.

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