John McCain completed a remarkable comeback from counted-out candidate to clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination in Florida on Tuesday, narrowly defeating big-spending Mitt Romney. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, secured a far more symbolic, but no less satisfying, victory over her Democratic nemesis, Barack Obama.
McCain had been declared all but dead politically last summer, when reports surfaced that his campaign was almost out of money, and several key advisors left amid public bickering. But after taking New Hampshire and South Carolina in recent weeks, the Arizona senator and former Vietnam War hero must now be considered the prohibitive favorite for the nomination. McCain, long considered a maverick who could never quite gain the trust of social conservatives, decisively laid to rest doubts that he couldn't win in a Republican-only race, defeating former Massachusetts Gov. Romney by 36 percent to 31 percent. Florida was the first true test of McCain's pull with the Republican Party faithful; under primary rules, independent voters and swing Democrats, two voting blocs that helped McCain to victory in the Granite State and in South Carolina, could not cast ballots.
While Romney made clear he was staying in the race, McCain got an added burst of momentum after reports circulated that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was once the frontrunner in national polls, would drop out and endorse McCain on Wednesday. "We have a ways to go, but we're getting close," McCain said to chants of "Mac is back." "In one week we will have close to a national primary as we'll ever have in this country. I intend to win it and be the nominee of our party," he added, referring to the Super Tuesday primaries in 22 states on Feb. 5.
Giuliani polled a mere 15 percent, a distant third in the race, despite spending more time in Florida than any other candidate and skipping the early contests in a strategy that backfired badly. In a rambling concession speech, Giuliani did not formally withdraw but spoke about his candidacy in the past tense and plaintively referred to the fact that the party that once embraced him was leaving him behind: "I'm even in this party. This is a big party," Giuliani said, seemingly relieved that a campaign in which he seldom seemed entirely comfortable might soon be coming to an end.
The astonishing turnaround in McCain's fortunes arose from several factors: Giuliani's disastrous strategy of skipping the early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina; lingering GOP doubts about Romney's electability stemming from his Mormon faith, as well as tepid support from the Republican base over his squishy stance on social issues; and a certain degree of vindication for McCain's early staunch support of Bush's troop surge in Iraq.
McCain focused heavily on areas in the state where his message on national security would play well, like Tampa and the Panhandle-home to thousands of military vets and their families. Even in spite of polls showing that the economy was the biggest issue looming in the state, McCain did little to shake up his stump speech-hitting hard on the war, counterterrorism, and the need to keep America safe. Heading into the final weekend, McCain went on the attack, hitting Romney for his lukewarm support of the surge and calling him a flip-flopper. "He is consistent," McCain sneered to reporters during a campaign stop in Jacksonville on Monday. "He has consistently taken both sides of every major issue. He has consistently flip-flipped on every major issue."
Late last week, McCain and his aides began to lean hard on two big-time Florida lawmakers who had yet to offer endorsements in the race: Sen. Mel Martinez and Gov. Charlie Crist, both longtime allies of McCain. Both had initially said they would stay neutral in the race, but with Romney appearing to gain momentum in the polls, McCain privately pleaded with the two to reconsider. Martinez went first, announcing his support for McCain on Friday afternoon. On Saturday night, Crist, one of the most popular Republicans in Florida, followed, in what was regarded as the nail in Giuliani's grave.
As in New Hampshire, another state in which he dramatically outspent the eventual winner, Romney showed no signs of giving up. In his speech Tuesday night, he once again hammered away at McCain's perceived weaknesses: his role as part of the Washington establishment, and his admitted lack of expertise on the economy. "I think it's time for the politicians to leave Washington, and the citizens to take over," Romney said, adding: "I spent my entire life in the real economy. I know why jobs come and why they go… The economy is in my DNA. ….America needs a president in the White House who has actually had a job in the real economy."
On the Democratic side, the results were long known to be symbolic; Florida ran afoul of the national Democratic Party when it moved its primary up so early on the calendar, and the party punished the state by announcing it would not seat Florida's delegates at the convention this fall. All the Democratic candidates agreed not to campaign in the state. Even so, Clinton outpolled Obama by 50 percent to 33 percent, with the fast-fading John Edwards a distant third.
Clinton's victory marked a small but gratifying comeback of her own. She had come under severe criticism over her tactic of using her husband, former President Bill Clinton, as a kind of attack dog in South Carolina, where Obama, the Illinois senator, won a big two-to-one victory last week. On primary night, Clinton flew down to Davie, Fla., to thank Florida voters for their support. After the race was called in her favor, she greeted voters at the Signature Grand Ballroom, accompanied on stage by some of her high-profile Florida backers: Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Rep. Alcee Hastings, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and Sen. Bill Nelson. "Thank you for this tremendous victory tonight," she said. "I could not come here to ask in person for your votes, but I am here to thank you for your votes today. This has been a record turnout because Floridians wanted their voices to be heard on the great issues that affect our country and the world."