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Florida win propels McCain into Super Tuesday

Romney remains competitive. But the Jan. 29 outcome ends the bids of Giuliani and, on the Democratic side, Edwards.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 31, 2008

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John McCain's victory in the Florida primary sends the Arizona senator into Super Tuesday with a burst of momentum, but the race for the Republican presidential nomination remains highly competitive.

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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who came in second among Florida Republicans, has money and organization, and as the GOP race moves on to the 21 states that will vote or caucus on Feb. 5, he'll fight hard.

Still, next Tuesday's vote appears to revolve around Senator McCain, an intense, sometimes-unorthodox Republican who was left for dead politically last summer and clawed back to competitiveness by demonstrating an authenticity that has resonated with many voters.

"With Super Tuesday coming up, it's now McCain versus anti-McCain," says independent pollster John Zogby.

McCain faces fierce resistance from some Republicans, over his support for campaign-finance restrictions, comprehensive immigration reform, and occasional votes against tax cuts. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh recently warned his listeners that a McCain nomination would "destroy the Republican Party." Evangelical leader James Dobson has said he would not vote for McCain "under any circumstances."

But in a race where party elders seemed to be looking for the next Ronald Reagan, who never materialized, the contest has boiled down to next-best choices. Bit by bit, the GOP establishment – senators, governors, activists, rank-and-file Republican voters – is warming to the possibility of a McCain nomination, as one who has paid his dues and demonstrated an ability to connect with voters. By winning Florida, the first "closed" contest of the 2008 campaign, in which only registered Republicans could vote, McCain demonstrated he could win among the base of the party.

"I don't think it's possible for McCain to be the establishment candidate, but the establishment is backing itself into accepting the maverick," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "The establishment has decided he's the best hope for stopping a President Clinton or a President Obama."

The next outward sign that the "establishment" is now onboard with McCain will be fundraising, Mr. Ayres says. McCain needs to raise money fast to compete effectively against the wealthy Romney heading into Super Tuesday.

A collapse for Giuliani

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was set to drop out of the race Wednesday (after Monitor deadlines) and endorse McCain, using the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California as the backdrop. Mr. Giuliani came in third in Florida, with 15 percent of the vote, behind McCain's 36 percent and Romney's 31.

Throughout much of 2007, Giuliani led national polls of GOP voters, based principally on his reputation for leadership during the 9/11 crisis. But he also worried the GOP establishment with his liberal views on social issues. Ultimately, he did himself in as a candidate by following the unorthodox strategy of waiting until the fifth major nominating contest to make a serious bid for voters. Analysts predict Giuliani voters will now go to McCain, who does best in trial heats against top Democrats.

"To the extent that they're more moderate, he [McCain] would be the obvious choice versus the 2008 version of Romney," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.