After Florida: John McCain and Mitt Romney

And then there were two.

If you're a Floridian sick of the fluidity and uncertainty of this year's Republican race, vote for McCain. Notched alongside New Hampshire and South Carolina on his belt, a Florida win would cement McCain's frontrunner status once and for all and catapult him into the GOP's 21 Super Tuesday contests--the biggest of which, like California and New York, he's already winning by sizable margins--with nearly unstoppable momentum. But if you prefer to prolong the indecision, pull the lever for Romney. Giving the former Massachusetts governor his first major win--Wyoming and Nevada were uncontested; Michigan was his home state--would put him on equal footing with the gentleman from Arizona and position Feb. 5 to be the single most unpredictable day in a primary season that's seen no shortage of unpredictability.

Today, McCain is hoping to seal the deal; Romney, to stay alive. With nearly every one the 25 polls taken since Jan. 19 showing a dead-heat, this week's bitter backbiting left no doubt about how high the stakes are for each campaign. The race started substantively enough. Romney pitched himself, per usual, as the man ready to repair a wobbling economy; McCain stuck to his pro-surge, national-security credentials and hoped the voters would choose character over pocketbook concerns (a call echoed by key endorsers Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. Mel Martinez). But last weekend, things got nasty. McCain (erroneously) accused Romney of supporting a "secret timetable" for withdrawal from Iraq; both sides dropped the dreaded "L-word." As the clock ticked down yesterday, the vitriol only increased, with McCain saying that Romney's campaign is based on 'the wholesale deception of voters," and Romney responding that McCain will "say anything to get elected." Meanwhile, vicious robocalls continued to interrupt dinners statewide. An elderly Romney supporter told me yesterday that a caller--probably a push-poll "interviewer"--had implied (falsely) that Romney favored abortion and opening the borders. "I said, 'I don't like these questions," she recalled. "And then he said, 'Neither do I, ma'am.' Can you believe that!"

With Floridians eager for the mudslingers to move on, it's still unclear what happens next. If McCain finishes first, it will prove that he doesn't need Independents to win, providing a powerful rebuttal to Romney's charge that McCain isn't a "real Republican"; unlike New Hampshire and South Carolina, only the party faithful can participate in the Florida primary. It'll be hard for Romney to spin even a close second; Florida is winner-take-all, and, as Mitt has said, "I'm not looking for gold stars on my forehead like I'm in first grade. I'm looking to rack up the delegates I need to win the nomination." A wave of positive headlines--after all, McCain once called the press his "base," and pundits are salivating at the prospect of crowning someonethe frontrunner--will likely boost his (already strong) poll numbers in California and the delegate-rich northeast (expect him to focus on those two areas in the run-up to Super Tuesday). Voters initially attracted to Giuliani's macho rhetoric will continue to flock to McCain, and Huckabee will keep his fervent social conservative constituency just out of Romney's reach for as long as possible. Mac will be hard to beat.

And if Romney wins? Who the heck knows. It seems safe to say that Mitt will get a boost--how big will depend on his margin--and I expect that the race would then be neck-and-neck until the returns come in next Tuesday. But that's just a guess. Frankly, hacks like me might have to give the predictions a rest until (at least) Feb. 6. 

Either way, the Republican race won't end tonight. A Romney-McCain title bout on Super Tuesday will polarize the party, and there are enough rabid anti-McCain conservatives out there to fuel the MittMobile for the foreseeable future. Plus, Romney's got far more cash in his war chest than McCain--no small advantage now that air time matters more than face time.

For the moment, at least, neither campaign is planning much beyond tomorrow's debate at the Reagan Library in California. It's a small acknowledgment of an obvious truth: after tonight, everything will change. Until then, the only thing to do is cross those fingers and wait.

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