After Romney's Barrage, McCain Stands Tall

After heading into Florida's primary neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney, John McCain wins in the Sunshine State. Since only GOP voters could participate, McCain's win suggests party regulars are getting more comfortable with his candidacy. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton won a contest in which no delegates were at stake.
By Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

On Friday, Mitt Romney accused John McCain of being the Democrats' favorite Republican. On Sunday, the former Massachusetts governor mocked McCain's endorsement in the New York Times and then observed, "If he's been a leader, where has it led us?" On Monday, Romney accused McCain of clobbering Florida taxpayers at the gas pump. Yesterday, he called him an economic novice.

But last night, the senator from Arizona emerged from that negative onslaught a survivor. In money and message, Romney threw all he could at McCain in a bruising week in Florida, but it did not prove to be enough.

"You don't want to say it doesn't get you anything because a lot of campaigns are won on negativity," said John Weaver, a longtime political adviser to McCain. "But if Romney wasn't born on third base, if he had to campaign and fundraise like everyone else, I'm sure he wouldn't be here anymore."

The Republicans' swing through Florida was a watershed. Not only was it the first big state of the presidential nomination fight, but it was also the first state that looked like the United States at large, with all its ethnic, religious and racial diversity, its economic haves and have-nots, and the sheer scale of its political universe. Romney was able to stay close, in part by far outspending McCain, but also by finding his strongest message yet as the can-do businessman standing against the ineffectual Washington insider.

"You're getting your first taste of a real American election in Florida," said Bill Nelson, the state's Democratic senator. "Romney was telling folks: 'I ran a business. I ran a state. I know how to run things and McCain doesn't.' Romney was hitting hard that McCain is not a real conservative. And I guess it didn't work."

To be sure, McCain gave as much as he got, scorning Romney as a flip-flopper, releasing an Internet ad with Romney's head superimposed on a windsurfing John Kerry, and bringing up a months-old statement by Romney on Iraq to rekindle a national security debate. When asked by exit pollsters yesterday to choose which candidate says what he believes, twice as many voters picked McCain over Romney.

But it was Romney's strategy that was laid bare, when he led with his chin and challenged McCain on his record on campaign finance, immigration, the environment and the economy.

"Look at his legislation," Romney said on CNN Sunday, "McCain-Feingold that hurt our First Amendment rights, McCain-Kennedy that was granting amnesty to 10 million illegal aliens and now McCain-Lieberman that wants to put a huge tax effectively on American gasoline buyers and ratepayers. His record is not the kind of leadership you want to have. I'm proud to be a leader that time and again has proven his mettle."

In the end, though, those arguments did not appear to resonate with many Florida voters. The powerful Cuban immigrant community went for McCain over Romney by a 5 to 1 margin, according to the network exit poll. McCain beat Romney by 10 percentage points among voters older than 65.

McCain even won among voters who would seemingly be open to Romney's economic pitch. Of the 63 percent of GOP voters who said the economy is doing poorly or not well, 41 percent sided with McCain, compared with 27 percent who voted for Romney.

Foes of illegal immigration were left scratching their heads over an issue that a month ago looked like the focal point of the nomination fight.

"The older Republicans who are still very angry at Bush about the amnesty issue have lost sight of the integral role McCain had in all of that," said Roy Beck, head of the immigration-limitation group NumbersUSA, who has waged war on McCain for his efforts to grant illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship. "For a lot of people, they just like McCain -- maverick in chief, the Straight Talk Express. They want to be convinced."

Despite Romney's loss in Florida, his allies said yesterday that the run-up to the primary provided them a road map for how they will continue to hit McCain in the 21 states holding GOP primaries and caucuses Tuesday.

"As the field was winnowed down, I do think that things got more focused, which means the choices became more obvious and that was when we started trending up," said Ben Ginsberg, a Republican lawyer and top Romney strategist.

Romney insiders believe that because of McCain's opposition to President Bush's signature $1.3 trillion tax-cut plan in 2001, they could portray the senator as not in command of the issue now soaring to the top of voters' concerns.

Romney, however, faces a steeper hurdle in drawing those contrasts with McCain in the Super Tuesday states. In Florida, as he did in other early states, Romney blanketed the airwaves with ads financed partly by his own fortune. According to Nielsen Co., Romney ran nearly 4,500 ads in Florida by Monday, compared with 470 by McCain.

But with so many states up for grabs on Tuesday, it becomes increasingly difficult for Romney to leverage that kind of an advantage against his chief rival nationwide.

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