McCain Wins Florida, Becomes Front-Runner

By: Wall Street Journal


Arizona Sen. John McCain triumphed over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in Florida’s Republican presidential primary, taking a trophy of 57 convention delegates — and bragging rights to front-runner status for the party’s nomination.

He also was poised to receive the endorsement of the Republican field’s onetime front-runner. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was planning to drop out and throw his support to Sen. McCain, associates said, after coming in a distant third and losing his must-win bet on the first state where he aggressively campaigned.

For Sen. McCain, the victory marked his third big step in a remarkable comeback march after his campaign was nearly written off last summer. Earlier this month he won New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary and then South Carolina’s primary Jan. 19. Along the way, he lost to Mr. Romney in Michigan.

With 80% of the vote counted, Sen. McCain led with 36%, followed by Mr. Romney with 31%, Mr. Giuliani with 15% and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee with 13%.

Sen. McCain inevitably gains an important edge in momentum and fund raising heading into “Super Tuesday” next week, with primaries and caucuses in more than 20 states across the nation. Even before the Florida win, polls in three of the largest states voting — California, New York and Illinois — showed Sen. McCain with big leads over Mr. Romney and other rivals.

Still, Sen. McCain remains underfunded and far from locking up the nomination. Mr. Romney, now his main rival, has the personal wealth to finance his campaign. Mr. Huckabee, who was running fourth in Florida just behind Mr. Giuliani, also continues his campaign, as does antiwar Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

Mindful of many conservatives’ nostalgia for Ronald Reagan — and opposition to himself — Sen. McCain used his victory speech to associate himself with the late president. Alluding to his days as a Vietnam prisoner of war, he said, “I stand for the principles and policies that first attracted me to the Republican Party when I heard, in whispered conversations and tap codes, about the then governor of California, who stood by me and my comrades….And I am as proud to be a Reagan conservative today, as I was then.”

A defiant Mr. Romney last night told cheering supporters, “Washington is fundamentally broken and we’re not going to change Washington by sending the same people back just to sit in different chairs.”

Mr. Romney can take some heart in the fact that Sen. McCain remains deeply unpopular among some conservative Republicans. They are angry over the senator’s opposition to some of President Bush’s tax cuts, and his backing of compromises on immigration and campaign-finance laws, among other things.

In Florida, Sen. McCain stressed his national-security expertise, and Mr. Romney, a former venture capitalist, his credentials for fixing an ailing economy. Yet exit polls showed Sen. McCain outpolled Mr. Romney even among the 45% plurality of Republican voters who said the economy was the most important issue facing the nation.

Mr. Huckabee, the Republican who mostly draws support from the party’s Christian conservatives, hasn’t had a victory in the presidential nomination race since the opening Iowa caucuses. He is expected to soldier on at least through Super Tuesday, when several Southern states hold primaries.

On the Democratic side, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton easily beat Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Democrats didn’t campaign in Florida, and no delegates were to be awarded, in keeping with the national party’s sanction of Florida Democrats for scheduling a primary earlier than party rules permit.

But Sen. Clinton said she would push to reverse that decision and potentially claim more than 100 delegates toward the 2,025 needed.

Coveted Prize

Florida Republicans were also punished by their national party, but they lose only half of their delegates. The 57 left made for a coveted prize. Sen. McCain pockets all of them, unlike in many states that allocate delegates among the top finishers.

While Mr. Giuliani is a hero to many Republicans for his leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he nonetheless struggled for acceptance because of his liberal record on abortion and gay rights, and his messy private life. He tried what has never been done in modern nomination races, effectively skipping the early contests in socially conservative states such as Iowa and South Carolina to put all his effort into winning Florida.

His gamble initially seemed to have some chance, when Messrs. McCain, Romney and Huckabee split the early decisions. But while these candidates dominated the news, Mr. Giuliani faced headlines about the indictment of his former police commissioner in New York, Bernard Kerik. There were also allegations that as mayor he misreported expenses for his security detail while he was having an affair with Judith Nathan, who is now his third wife. Mr. Giuliani was so low on funds that staffers worked without pay.

While Sen. McCain claimed an advantage among Florida’s large veteran and retiree population, his challenge was to win over conservatives. Unlike in the other early states, only Republicans could vote in yesterday’s Florida primary, not the independents who tended to support Sen. McCain elsewhere.

Mr. Romney had hoped to prevail in a Republicans-only contest. But Sen. McCain sought to convert more Republicans by making blistering attacks against Sen. Clinton, the Democrat whom Republican partisans most love to hate. Citing her calls for timetables to withdraw from Iraq, he said at campaign stops, “Never do I know of, in political history, that a leading candidate for president of the United States wants to wave the white flag and surrender to the enemy.”

Much of Florida’s Republican establishment rallied to him, hoping to clarify the party’s presidential contest. Sen. McCain’s backers included popular Gov. Charles Crist, Sen. Mel Martinez and Cuban-American members of Congress. Just under half of all voters said the Crist endorsement was important in their decision; Sen. McCain beat Mr. Romney 2-to-1 among them.

Cuban-American Bloc

Sen. McCain also dominated among the powerful Cuban-American bloc in South Florida, winning an outright majority, with Mr. Giuliani getting about a third and Mr. Romney far behind. Hispanics in general accounted for about 10% of the votes, and Sen. McCain got more than half of them. Alone among the Republicans, he supported legislation providing a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.

His stance, highly unpopular in the party, was a big factor in Sen. McCain’s decline last year, and cost him in early-voting states such as Iowa. But his appeals to the party for more tolerance, while rivals such as Mr. Romney ratcheted up their anti-immigration rhetoric, helped him secure the support of Florida leaders — such as Gov. Crist — who fear Republicans could alienate the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group, Hispanics.

Sen. McCain was also helped in Florida by his perceived electability, compared with his rivals. About half of voters said they thought Mr. McCain was the most likely Republican to be able to defeat the Democrats’ nominee in November. He carried about half of those who said that was their most important consideration.

One-third of the Florida Republican voters yesterday were 65 years old and over, and Sen. McCain got the votes of four out of 10, compared with three out of 10 for Mr. Romney and under two out of 10 for Mr. Giuliani.

–Elizabeth Holmes and Alex Frangos contributed to this article.

Write to Jackie Calmes at

* Content From the Wall Street Journal supplied by Elva Ramirez:
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