McCain Surges on Strength of Florida Win

Sen. John McCain of Arizona builds momentum in the Republican presidential race with a victory in Tuesday's primary in Florida. The outcome is a blow to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and appears to end former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's White House hopes.

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It's worth pausing a moment to recall that a few months ago Senator John McCain's presidential campaign was sliding in the polls, almost broke, and widely written off. Now he is the winner of the Florida primary and the Republican front-runner. Democrats had little at stake in Florida last night. Nobody campaigned there because it was considered too early.

The Republican contest was very different, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: For John McCain, the victory in Florida means a huge boost in delegates, momentum and much needed fundraising heading into the Super Tuesday contest in more than 20 states next week. McCain told supporters in Miami last night to celebrate for a moment, because today it's back to work.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): My friends, in one week, in one week we will have as close to a national primary as we've ever had in this country. I intend to win it and be the nominee of our party.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HORSLEY: All of the Republicans campaigned hard in Florida, seeing the state as a giant stepping stone to the nomination. McCain faced particularly tough competition from Mitt Romney. But exit polls show the 71-year-old senator winning handily among Florida seniors, who represented the biggest voting block. He also got some last-minute support from Florida's popular governor, Charlie Crist. Exit polls suggest McCain scored best with Republicans who consider themselves moderate, while Romney did better with self-described conservatives.

Last night, McCain vowed to become the standard bearer for all Republicans by chanting limited government, low taxes and careful spending.

Sen. McCAIN: I am confident we will succeed in this contest and in the bigger one in November against - against anyone the Democratic Party nominates.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HORSLEY: For Romney, Florida represents another disappointing second-place finish, and because of the winner-take-all system, he gets none of the state's 57 delegates. He'd hoped to win in Florida by stressing his business savvy and experience in economic issues. But even though half the voters called the economy the most pressing issue, McCain was seen as just as capable in that area.

Romney shows no signs of ending his campaign. His wife Ann told supporters in St. Petersburg last night they are looking forward to next week's contest.

Ms. ANN ROMNEY: The conservatives are starting to rally around Mitt. This is just a send-off point. This is not an end. It's another beginning. We have 22 more states to go after, and we will be able to do that.

HORSLEY: Mitt Romney pointedly thanked a couple of cousins campaigning for him from California and Colorado, two states with contests next week. And he joked that supporters make his already large family feel like it's getting even bigger.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): All you guys are family. Don't expect to be part of the inheritance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROMNEY: I'm not sure there's going to be much left after this.

HORSLEY: The multimillionaire has already dug deeply into his own pocket for the race, buying almost 10 times as many TV ads in Florida as McCain did.

Rudy Giuliani also campaigned hard in Florida after conceding several of the earlier contests. That strategy seem to backfire on the former New York mayor. And by last night Giuliani was speaking of his campaign in the past tense.

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former Republican Mayor, New York: Presidential Candidate): I'm proud that we chose to stay positive and to run a campaign of ideas. In an era of personal attacks, negative ads and cynical spin, we ran a campaign that was uplifting.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Giuliani travels to California today, where he is expected to throw his support to McCain. For all the focus Republicans put on Florida, Democratic presidential candidates steered clear of the state. They had promised not to campaign here after Florida blocked the party's rules and moved its primary up into January. That didn't stop Hillary Clinton, though, from coming to Davie, Florida last night to celebrate with her supporters, even though her victory carries no delegates with it, at least for now.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): I promise you I will do everything I can to make sure not only are Florida's Democratic delegates seated, but Florida is in the winning column for the Democrats in 2008.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HORSLEY: Clinton got half the Democratic total, more votes than any of the Republicans. But it was on the GOP side that yesterday's primary narrowed the field; next week's contests from coast to coast are expected to continue that process.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, St. Petersburg, Florida.

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McCain Wins Florida's Republican Primary

Arizona Sen. John McCain won the Florida Republican primary on Tuesday, earning him the state's coveted 57 delegates and giving him his third January victory heading into Super Tuesday.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was just about 5 percentage points back but received no dividend, given the state's winner-take-all rules. Romney had been in a virtual tie with McCain in late polls in Florida, where he had a strong debate performance Jan. 24 in Boca Raton. His message of business expertise in the face of looming recession had been seen as timely and effective.

But in the end, McCain was the choice of slightly more Republican voters who cited the economy as their top concern, according the exit polls by the Associated Press and TV networks.

Romney was the favorite among those who opposed abortion and illegal immigration, along with 40 percent of conservative Republicans. McCain attracted 25 percent of conservative Republicans, getting his boost from moderates, Latinos and older Floridians.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee came in a distant third and fourth place. The Associated Press is reporting that Giuliani plans to drop out of the race Wednesday to endorse McCain.

In his victory speech, McCain cited Ronald Reagan as his inspiration, stressing his conservative credentials and his commitment to national security.

"I intend to be the nominee of our party. I stand for the principles and policies that first attracted me to the Republican Party," McCain said.

Romney vowed to stay in the race and to fight what he calls the failed policies of a broken Washington. Speaking to supporters in St. Petersburg, he said, "At a time like this, America needs a president in the White House who has actually had a job in the real economy."

Florida's No-Delegate Democratic Primary

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton easily won Florida's Democratic primary — although no delegates were actually awarded, and the contest itself was not sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. The committee acted after Florida defied both national parties' rules and moved its primary into January. The candidates also respected a committee ban on campaigning in Florida — which nonetheless listed their names on the ballot.

The Clinton campaign called its 50-percent share of the vote a major victory (Obama had about 33 percent) and accused the Obama camp of violating the ban on campaigning by including Florida in a national ad buy. The Obama camp noted that Clinton had appealed to Floridians over the weekend by promising to have her delegates vote to seat the Florida delegation at the national meeting in Denver in August.

Record Voter Turnout in Florida

Voting was brisk throughout the day. Even before primary day, more than 1 million Florida residents, or about 10 percent of all those eligible, participated through absentee ballots or early voting. (Florida is one of several states to allow early voting at select polling stations.)

In the last Florida GOP contest in 2000, 700,000 Republicans voted. This year, about 1.9 million did. Democratic turnout was also up dramatically from 2000 and 2004, with at least 1.7 million voting on that side.

While the close presidential race may have helped turnout, a local proposition on property taxes also fueled voter traffic.

Florida as Giuliani's Swan Song

With four Republican front-runners going into the primary, the contest became the candidates' last chance to winnow the field before the race opened up into a broader national contest.

Florida also became the sole hope for Giuliani. After largely ignoring the other early voting contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Giuliani staked his entire campaign on Florida — with the hope that the state's large number of ex-New Yorkers would support their former mayor.

But even an abundance of Yankee baseball references could not boost his candidacy, as his rivals touted their early victories and the resulting media coverage. Giuliani's lead in the national polls had evaporated before the end of 2007, and his numbers in Florida followed suit.

Floridians did not even flock to him when he proposed a hyper-local issue: the creation of a National Catastrophe Insurance Fund to help Floridians who could no longer afford homeowner's insurance premiums after the state's last two hurricanes.

After his disappointing third-place finish, Giuliani told supporters that "the responsibility of leadership doesn't end with a single campaign. It goes on and you continue to fight for it."

While Giuliani's star power dimmed over the last few weeks, Huckabee suffered from a lack of money. His campaign could not compete against McCain or deep-pocketed Romney, who has been advertising in Florida since March 2007.

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