McCain Florida Victory Has an Accent

Robert McMahon
Council on Foreign Relations
Wednesday, January 30, 2008 9:36 AM

The wide-open Republican nominating contest for president has swung back in favor of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) with signals he is attracting support beyond his normal base. McCain also polled particularly well among Hispanic voters possibly troubled by the strident tone of last summer's debate on immigration reform. Known as a maverick in the party for his views on issues like climate change, the treatment of imprisoned terror suspects, and immigration, McCain's solid victory (Miami Herald) over Mitt Romney in the January 29 Florida primary led analysts to suggest the GOP was beginning to coalesce behind his candidacy. This appeared especially true after reports that third-place finisher Rudy Giuliani, a former front-runner in national polls, was set to throw his support behind McCain (AP). McCain has been propelled by support from independents and moderates. Florida marked his first win in a nominating process in which only registered Republicans were allowed to participate.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) was the other winner in Florida on January 29, defeating her rival, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), by a wide margin (NYT). But a dispute within the Democratic Party over Florida's decision to break ranks and move its primary date forward drew a suspension from the national party, meaning the state's Democratic delegates may not influence the nomination this year. Still, after abiding by the campaigning boycott, Clinton swooped into Florida to celebrate a "victory" Obama decried as mere spin (Times of London). The party's eventual nominee is expected to press for the admission of Florida's delegates, as Clinton vowed Tuesday night (CNN). John Edwards is dropping out of the race, the Associated Press reported on January 30.

The stakes on the Republican side were high. Campaigning against Romney, McCain stressed his national security experience (WSJ) and asserted his leadership on supporting last year's surge in Iraq. Exit polling of voters showed McCain did markedly better with those putting the war as their top concern. He also bested Romney, who is campaigning as a business and finance expert, among voters placing the economy at the top of concerns (NYT). Exit polling logged by CNN showed 47 percent of Republicans said the economy was the most important issue. That far exceeded terrorism (19 percent), illegal immigration (17 percent), and the war in Iraq (13 percent) as top issues.

The immigration issue, long seen by analysts as McCain's chief vulnerability because of his support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, may actually have cut the other way in Florida (Miami Herald). Romney received strong support from Republicans who cited it as the most important issue and among those favoring deporting illegal immigrants. But McCain gained support from half of Hispanic voters. And Florida's influential bloc of Cuban-American voters supported McCain five-to-one over Romney, which the Washington Post said was less about rhetoric against Castro-led Cuba and more "because he was the moderate, pro-immigrant candidate they wanted."

McCain captured all fifty-seven of Florida's delegates, putting him in the lead in delegate count heading into the massive February 5 primaries in more than twenty states. In conceding defeat, Romney repeated his criticism of Washington insider politics and touted his credentials for fixing economic problems, saying "I've worked in the real economy." Giuliani was seen as the night's biggest loser, after focusing his efforts on Florida while the nominating season got under way in early January in Iowa and New Hampshire. His emphasis on leadership as New York's mayor on 9/11 led some analysts to call him a single-issue candidate focused on the war on terror. Giuliani finished just ahead of Mike Huckabee, who declared he is remaining in the GOP race. McCain now holds a lead in national polling averages (RealClearPolitics). The leading Democrats, along with McCain, Romney, Giuliani, and Huckabee, all offered their views on foreign policy in recent issues of Foreign Affairs.

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