Romney has the former, McCain the latter in what looks like a 2-way race
John McCain’s narrow victory over Mitt Romney in Florida’s Republican primary Tuesday gives him a front-runner’s boost into next week when 21 states will have GOP primaries and caucuses.
McCain’s win propels the Arizona senator down a most unlikely comeback trail. Given up as a lost cause by even some of his closest advisers last summer, McCain now rushes toward Super Tuesday with momentum and a lead in polls in key states, including California and New York.
In a primary season that has defied expectations, the 71-year-old senator has now won contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
Tuesday’s results set the stage for a coast-to-coast McCain-Romney rematch Feb. 5, pitting Romney’s financial advantage – he has poured undisclosed millions of his own money into the race so far – against McCain’s momentum.
Dan Schnur, a veteran California activist who was communications director in McCain’s 2000 run for the presidency, said the Florida victory made McCain a “very strong front-runner.”
“When they put together this primary calendar, I don’t think anyone would have anticipated Florida would have played such a decisive role,” Schnur said. “A 71-year-old running as the establishment candidate was spiraling downward last year. A 71-year-old running as an outsider and straight talker can be a credible messenger of change.”
McCain was conciliatory in his victory speech, offering praise for each of his major opponents, including “my dear friend” (Rudy) Giuliani, who finished third.
Speaking of Super Tuesday, McCain said: “I intend to win it and to be the nominee of our party.”
Romney was a defiant runner-up, presaging what could be a lively Wednesday night debate at the Ronald Reagan Library north of Los Angeles (CNN, 6 p.m.).
“We’re not sending the same people back to Washington just to occupy different chairs,” Romney said in Florida.
With Florida in his pocket, McCain “further takes on the air of inevitability and electability, (and) that has always been his strength over Romney,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of California’s influential Field Poll.
Distant finishes by Giuliani, who staked his candidacy on Florida, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has been shut out since a stunning Iowa caucus win Jan. 3, has both Republican candidates teetering on the edge of viability.
The Florida results essentially create a two-way GOP contest between McCain and Romney, matching what has become a two-way race on the Democratic side between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
While Clinton easily won in Florida, she came away with no delegates. The Democratic National Committee penalized Florida for voting in January and took away all the state party’s delegates to the national convention. Republicans took away half of the Sunshine State’s delegates, giving McCain 57.
Still, Clinton tried to find significance in the results by portraying the outcome as a precursor to Feb. 5. Obama, who trounced Clinton in South Carolina last week, said the only thing that counts now is delegates.
Giuliani is proof that early primary contests matter. Through January, he finished so far behind other Republicans, including Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, that the momentum and focus on the other candidates created a wave Giuliani could not withstand.
Huckabee, devoid of money to overcome a rash of back-in-the-pack finishes, has nothing to lose by staying in, but he trails in polls in many of the bigger states voting Feb. 5.