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.
"Tonight, my friends, we celebrate," McCain continued. "Tomorrow it's back to work. We have a ways to go, but we are getting close."
Romney had tried to cast McCain as unprepared to confront the economic challenges in Florida and the nation as the stock market tumbled and the housing crisis escalated. But the former corporate chief executive's focus on the economy did not move enough voters to his side even though voters rated it as their top issue.
"Almost, but not quite," Romney declared to a crowded ballroom of supporters after his loss to McCain.
Network exit polls out of Florida showed the economy as the breakaway issue, with 45 percent of GOP voters and 55 percent of Democrats calling it the top concern.
Romney aides, while disappointed in the loss, said they would now enter a two-man race with McCain, where they can run as the conservative candidate against the at-times maverick senator. They said the divided field and the endorsement by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist had tipped this vote to McCain, but that they could upset him in some states and pick up delegates in states they don't win.
"The conservatives are starting to rally around Mitt," his wife, Ann, declared in brief remarks after her husband spoke.
The exit poll showed McCain with the edge among voters most concerned about the economy and a wide margin among those who said Iraq was the top issue. Romney won among those most concerned about immigration, while those who cited terrorism as the country's most important problem spread their votes nearly evenly among Romney, McCain and Giuliani.
McCain did well among Hispanics, winning 54 percent of their votes, and among self-described independents, who made up 17 percent of all GOP voters. Among self-identified Republicans, McCain and Romney ran evenly.
Huckabee trailed well behind after choosing not to campaign much in Florida.
The Florida primary became a critical test for the Republican candidates after an early voting schedule that did little to settle uncertainty about who should claim the mantle of leadership following eight years of President Bush. The candidates split the first set of contests before heading to Florida, where Giuliani sat waiting for his chance in the political spotlight.
But that chance never really came.
Giuliani largely skipped the first five contests, then saw once-sky-high poll numbers in Florida plunge when the others arrived. By primary day, surveys showed him fighting with Huckabee for third place.
Giuliani campaigned hard throughout Florida, touting his leadership, his experience managing New York City and his support for a national insurance fund that would make it easier for Floridians to purchase affordable homeowners and flood insurance.
He also spent more than $4 million on television ads, campaign mailers and a sophisticated ground organization. Thousands of volunteers made hundreds of thousands of get-out-the-vote calls in the final days of the campaign here. On the day before the primary, he flew reporters across the state for a series of rallies.
"We're going to win Florida tomorrow," Giuliani said repeatedly, promising that a victory in the Sunshine State would propel him to the nomination and ultimately to the White House.
But Giuliani was repeatedly upstaged by McCain and Romney, who greeted each other gingerly in a national debate in Boca Raton, then let the aggression fly in days of exchanges that barely disguised contempt.
McCain attempted to shift the conversation to national security by accusing Romney of having supported a date for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Romney called that "dishonest" and demanded an apology from McCain, who not only refused, but also said that Romney owed an apology to the men and women serving in the military in Iraq.
That spat was followed by two days of arguing about which of the two is the more liberal. Romney said McCain's achievements in Congress on immigration, campaign finance and energy would take the country on a "liberal Democratic course." McCain charged that "Mitt Romney's campaign is based on the wholesale deception of voters."
Despite the lack of delegates, the Clinton campaign claimed a big win. "I am thrilled by the vote of confidence you have given me today," Clinton said at a rally in Davie.
The Obama campaign countered the effort to spin the results, mockingly saying it would call the race early and announcing that the candidates were tied for delegates -- with each getting zero -- when the results were in.
"It is not a legitimate race," Sen. John F. Kerry, who has endorsed Obama, told reporters on a call organized by the Obama campaign. "It should not become a spin race, it should not become a fabricated race."
But the Clinton campaign was counting on voters in states with Feb. 5 contests paying little attention to the confusion over delegates. The headlines, they hoped, would simply reflect that she won by a huge margin over Obama in a large state.
In every statement about the race, Clinton and her surrogates repeatedly insisted that Florida's "votes count" -- despite her earlier agreement to honor party rules.
Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr. and Anne E. Kornblut in Florida and polling director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.