McCain Beats Romney in Florida

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) addresses his supporters after winning the Florida primary election. Video by AP
By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

ORLANDO, Jan. 29 -- Sen. John McCain of Arizona pulled out a hard-fought victory over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in Florida's contentious Republican primary Tuesday, making him the clear front-runner in a two-man presidential race that could be decided as soon as next week.

Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose status as "America's Mayor" catapulted him to the head of the GOP field for most of last year, finished third. His speech to supporters had the feel of a goodbye, and top aides said he plans to drop out Wednesday and endorse McCain in California ahead of a debate there.

Speaking in Orlando as tears ran down his staffers' faces, Giuliani said: "I'm proud that we chose to stay positive and run a campaign of ideas. We ran a campaign that was uplifting. You don't always win but you can always try to do it right."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) won the state's largely symbolic Democratic primary. None of the candidates campaigned here and no delegates will be awarded because the state party scheduled the contest earlier than the national party allowed. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) was a distant second, with former senator John Edwards (N.C.) in third.

The Republican Party also punished Florida for voting before Feb. 5 without permission, but it cut the number of delegates in half rather than eliminating them entirely. McCain was awarded 57 delegates in the winner-take-all primary.

With 95 percent of the vote counted, McCain led with 36 percent of the vote compared to 31 percent for Romney. Giuliani had 14.7 percent of the vote and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee trailed with 13.5 percent.

For McCain, the victory finally proved that he can win a primary limited to registered Republicans. The win came in part because of heavy support from Hispanics, and it helped erase lingering doubts that he is not conservative enough for his own party.

Nonetheless, the Florida contest was the nastiest so far, featuring a series of testy exchanges between McCain and Romney that laid bare their dislike for one another. In the past three days, Romney has called McCain "dishonest" and a "liberal Democrat," while McCain has accused Romney of "wholesale deception" of voters.

The Republican race immediately shifts westward Wednesday, with a debate in Southern California that kicks off a six-day frenzy of cross-country campaigning leading to Super Tuesday, when 21 states vote.

Making it clear he was now girding for a fierce battle with Romney, McCain declared in his victory speech Tuesday night that, "My friends, in one week we will have as close to a national primary as we have ever had in this country. I intend to win it, and be the nominee of our party."

McCain had tried to keep the focus of the Florida campaign on foreign policy, where he believes he has the advantage. A former prisoner of war in Vietnam, McCain rebuilt his campaign last year on the strength of his support of the buildup of U.S. troops in Iraq.

McCain saved his kindest words last night for Giuliani, who he said, "invested his heart and soul in this primary, and [he] conducted himself with all the qualities of the exceptional American leader he truly is.

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