By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 29 -- With his victory in Florida, Sen. John McCain of Arizona took control of the battle for the Republican presidential nomination -- a prospect that seemed almost unthinkable just a few months ago.
After previous wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina, McCain enjoys assets that many party strategists said Tuesday night will make him difficult to stop in his bid to win the nomination that eluded him eight years ago. He can effectively close out the race against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in next week's 21-state GOP showdown.
"It gives him real momentum going into Super Tuesday," said Matthew Dowd, who was chief strategist for President Bush's reelection campaign in 2004. "Florida really is the steppingstone."
Strategists noted that Romney's tenacity and ability to write a check from his personal fortune to keep his campaign going make him a formidable opponent, but the landscape appears stacked against him -- beginning with the aftershocks from Tuesday's results.
Romney will probably receive support from parts of the party's conservative base, which has never warmed to McCain and now has perhaps one final chance to stop him. But McCain will benefit from other developments in Florida.
Tuesday's primary eliminated from serious contention former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who stunned his rivals by winning the Iowa caucuses 26 days ago, and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, long the national front-runner until he dramatically faded over the past two months.
Giuliani is set to quit the race and endorse McCain before Wednesday's debate at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in California. Huckabee said he will remain in, and by doing so will help McCain by frustrating Romney's efforts to attract more of the conservative votes he needs to overtake the front-runner.
The Democratic balloting in Florida was not without its drama Tuesday, even though the event was not sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. It had stripped Florida of its delegates to the national convention because state party leaders had scheduled the primary earlier than the DNC had wanted.
None of the candidates campaigned there, but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), anticipating an easy victory, stole a beat on Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) by flying into the state to hold a victory party on Tuesday night after winning half the vote -- and more actual votes than McCain won in his victory.
Her goal was a public relations coup aimed at blunting the momentum Obama had gained from his victory in South Carolina last Saturday and from endorsements from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of John F. Kennedy. But the real battle for the Democrats lies ahead, beginning on Super Tuesday but likely to continue into primaries later in February and beyond.
McCain's victory in Florida was especially notable because this marked the first major contest in which only registered Republicans and not independents -- long his most consistent supporters -- were allowed to participate. But he lost among voters who described themselves as conservatives.
While not the darling of the conservative establishment, McCain is seen by many rank-and-file Republicans, and some party leaders, as their most electable nominee. They also consider him the one with the greatest opportunity to reach beyond the party's base to draw independent voters, who have swung toward Democrats in the past two years.
Exit polls from Florida showed, however, the ideological fault lines that will shape the competition between Romney and McCain over the next week.
Among those who described themselves as very conservative, Romney beat McCain by better than 2 to 1. Among moderates, McCain beat Romney by the same ratio. Among those who said they are "somewhat conservative," the two ran roughly even.
McCain enjoys clear advantages over Romney on the war in Iraq, and his support for President Bush's troop increase has become a badge of honor in this race. But what was perhaps a surprise was that McCain trumped Romney on the economy, the issue that has come to dominate the presidential race and one that Romney counted as his most effective weapon in Florida.
More than 4 in 10 Florida Republicans said the economy is the most important problem facing the country, and McCain carried their votes. Romney won among Republicans with the most positive impression of the economy; McCain dominated among those who see an economy in trouble.
One Romney strategist said the former governor's goal will be to maximize the number of delegates he accumulates on Super Tuesday in an effort to deny McCain a decisive victory. But the terrain clearly favors McCain at this point.
With or without Giuliani's help, McCain will probably win primaries in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as those states' delegates. He leads in polls in California, where delegates are apportioned on the basis of who wins each congressional district, and may be able to expand his appeal there as well.
Romney hopes to work the heartland and some Southern states, but will find his path partially blocked by Huckabee. But even with Romney's considerable resources, knowing where to spend his time and money represents a huge challenge. "The political calculus of Super Tuesday . . . makes the November electoral calculus look like simple math," said Republican strategist Neil Newhouse.
McCain advisers said they anticipate a week of political combat with Romney. "It will be more of the same on the economy and the attacks he engaged in" Monday, said one McCain adviser, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about strategy. "McCain will have to pivot to talk about authenticity. . . . We'll say McCain is ready to be commander in chief and Romney is a guy who is a slick salesman."
McCain was ebullient as he addressed supporters in Florida on Tuesday night, sounding the call for one more big effort from them in the coming days. Surveying the landscape of Super Tuesday and what amounts now to a national primary that may well decide the Republican race, he said, "I intend to win it and be the nominee of our party."