FORT MYERS, Florida (Reuters) - U.S. presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani decided right from the start that his road to the White House passed through Florida, a diverse state rich in retired New Yorkers, immigrants and economic woes.
A longtime Republican front-runner in national polls, he virtually ignored early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, trusting Florida, the fourth most populous state and the one that catapulted George W. Bush into the White House eight years ago, to be his springboard to the nomination.
Republicans and Democrats are waging a state-by-state fight to win their parties' nominations to compete in November's election of a successor to Bush. Florida votes on January 29.
But Giuliani has lost his national lead, and new polls on Monday showing the former New York mayor ceding his long-held Florida lead to Arizona Sen. John McCain called his strategy into question.
A Quinnipiac University poll had McCain backed by 22 percent of Republican likely primary voters in Florida, with Giuliani at 20 percent and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 19 percent each.
McCain, the New Hampshire winner, picked up 9 percentage points from the last Quinnipiac poll, and Giuliani lost eight.
"It is a strategy of lulling your opponents into a false sense of confidence," Giuliani joked at a rally last week.
Publicly their confidence has not waned, but Giuliani's top advisers concede his campaign will be in trouble if he doesn't win Florida, where he has spent 44 days campaigning and plans to spend most of the $7 million he has stockpiled for the primaries.
"If we win Florida, money will not be a problem. If we lose Florida, it will be a problem, sure," his national campaign chairman, Patrick Oxford, said.
"We'll be the smartest guys in America or the dumbest guys in America."
Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac's Polling Institute, said results in Michigan and South Carolina in the next few days will have a big impact on Florida.
"These numbers can't be good news for Mayor Giuliani," he said. "Giuliani is showing the negative effects of poor finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire."
Giuliani's strategy emerged from a hard look at the primary calendar, which has Florida, with more than 8 million voters, choosing just a week before 22 others, including large states like California and New York, on February 5.
No candidate will have the money to spend lavishly in all of those states, making momentum critical, his advisers said.
"If we win Florida, we will have 'Big Mo,'" Oxford said.
Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, said the biggest and most diverse state to vote early was a logical choice for the former big-city mayor.
"My guess is that he probably never thought McCain would be catching fire at the time he has and that Republicans would be going for a centrist candidate," she said.
Together, the Florida primary and the February 5 contests hold vastly more of the delegates needed to win the nomination than did Iowa, New Hampshire and others Giuliani ignored.
His top advisers say Giuliani's strengths play well in Florida, filled with former New Yorkers and other retirees, and grappling with gang violence and other law-and-order concerns and where residents fret about sky-high property taxes, insurance rates and other economic issues.
Giuliani hopes for heavy support from Miami's Cuban American neighborhoods, where he has been known to hang out in cigar shops and rail against Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
(Additional reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami)
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