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.
For Romney, one new source of votes would be supporters of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who came in fourth in Florida with 13 percent of the vote. Romney and Mr. Huckabee tied for the lead among evangelical voters with 30 percent each. But Huckabee shows no sign of quitting and could win some delegates in Southern states on Super Tuesday.
The Florida results were telling for Romney. He did the best by far among the 27 percent of voters who self-identified as "very conservative," winning 44 percent of their votes. McCain and Huckabee each got 20 percent. McCain won all the other ideological groups. The irony is that Romney governed Massachusetts as a moderate, shifting his positions on social issues only as he prepared for his presidential campaign.
More disturbing for Romney was the fact that McCain beat him among voters for whom the economy was the No. 1 issue. McCain has acknowledged that economics is not his strongest subject, and Romney had come to tout his own success in the business world as a central argument for his candidacy. When economic woes eclipsed Iraq as the No. 1 issue for voters, Romney seemed ready to cash in with votes, but not enough materialized.
"There's something more at play when you're dealing with John McCain – it's authenticity," says Mr. Zogby, the pollster.
Sometimes his eat-your-spinach style of talk flies right in his face, such as during the Michigan primary, when McCain talked down the possibility of regaining jobs. "There are limits to straight talk, and yet for the most part, it really seems to work for him," says Zogby.
Clinton is up, Edwards bows out
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton won the Democratic primary in Florida, beating Sen. Barack Obama 50 to 33 percent, but the result was mostly symbolic. Because of a dispute with the national party over the primary's timing, no delegates were at stake, and the candidates pledged not to campaign in Florida.
Still, Florida proved to be the end of the line for the campaign of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who announced his exit on Wednesday. Though Senator Obama hinted Tuesday night that he'd asked for Mr. Edwards's endorsement, it's unclear whether his withdrawal would most help Senator Clinton or Obama. Edwards fared best with whites and with older and working-class voters, groups that have skewed toward Clinton. But he also appealed to some independents, where Obama runs strong.
Clinton won in a state tailor-made for her most reliable constituency: older women. Some 59 percent of Florida Democratic voters were female, and Clinton won 55 percent of them. Forty percent of voters were 60 and older, and Clinton won 58 percent.
But there was some good news for Obama: He won among voters who had decided whom to support in the last month, in the last week, and in the last three days of the campaign (though not among those who decided on primary day). That victory among most of the late-decider categories may demonstrate a backlash against the Clinton campaign's hardball tactics against Obama in recent weeks, and possibly the weekend endorsements of Obama by Sen. Edward Kennedy and President John Kennedy's daughter, Caroline.
Turnout was heavy – 1.4 million voters – for a contest that technically did not count. Clinton campaign officials argue that the high turnout indicates intense interest in Clinton's candidacy and that those Florida voters' desires deserved to be counted at the Democratic convention next summer.
• Ariel Sabar contributed to this report.