John: yes, that bell is ringing rather loudly in Florida. Rudy–according to the latest batch of Florida polling–has slid into a third-place tie in Florida with Huckabee well behind McCain and Romney. Some polls have McCain up slightly and others have Romney in the lead, but all appear to be within the margin of error. This suggests : 1) Romney is gaining by picking up Thompson and Huckabee voters and 2) Rudy’s voters are moving to McCain. (#2 can be seen in California, New Jersey and New York as well.)
The shape of the race in the wake of this development is not yet clear. Are we moving to a two-man race, with conservatives lining up with Romney and moderates with McCain? Perhaps. McCain is certainly not willing to concede the conservative base to Romney. In Florida he is now positioning himself as the solid conservative (while Romney pursues his Washington Outsider theme) in an effort to secure a broad coalition of GOP voters. Romney still must fend off Huckabee, who may be a minor factor in Florida but likely will survive to fight in the February 5 states. But slowly, slowly the face off between the two bitter rivals is taking shape.
If we look beyond Florida, McCain may have the advantage.(And not just because the media and his opponents appear to detest Romney.) He has won South Carolina (Romney came in third). And word now comes that he sort-of won in Louisiana (the uncommitted pro-life slate won a majority, but McCain finished first among real candidates), making him competitive in the Red states in a way Romney has not yet shown himself to be. If Rudy does not win in Florida, McCain will likely continue to be the beneficiary in states in which Rudy previously dominated (e.g. New York, New Jersey, Illinois, California). In short, we may be heading for a McCain vs. Romney showdown, but one in which McCain’s advantage will grow if Rudy’s star continues to fade.