John McCain edged out Mitt Romney to win Florida’s Republican presidential primary, which offered the biggest windfall of delegates in the race so far. The victory sealed the transformation of McCain, whose campaign was largely written off last summer, into the front-runner for the GOP nomination. The Arizona senator could get another boost shortly, party officials said, when Rudy Giuliani—who was betting on Florida to catapult him into contention but finished a distant third—is expected to drop out and endorse McCain. (USA Today)
What the commentators said
McCain is now “clearly the favorite for the nomination” that has eluded him for so long, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. The Florida vote was “close enough” that he’ll have to “continue to slug it out” with Romney, at least until Super Tuesday next week. But Florida—where the party establishment “coalesced” around McCain like never before—proved that McCain can win votes from Republicans, and not just independents.
There’s no question that Florida was important, said Adam Nagourney in The New York Times (free registration). The state’s primary was the first contest open only to Republicans, so it was supposed to be a “battlefield” where McCain, the darling of independents, was “at a disadvantage.” But it’s Giuliani’s departure and endorsement that will really help McCain “achieve what will be his main goal in the days ahead: getting the party to rally behind him.”
McCain’s resurgence was almost as impressive as Giuliani’s dive into “irrelevance,” said Michael Leahy and Michael D. Shear in The Washington Post (free registration). The former New York mayor was once the national front-runner, but he was “mostly forgotten” as he skipped the other early-voting states to campaign in Florida for seven weeks. “The Florida strategy was born of desperation” as Giuliani failed to win over “voters in the states he needed to catapult his campaign,” and Florida was supposed to be the one state he was sure to win.
Giuliani was hoping that Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Fred Thompson would split the vote among conservatives, who don’t like his liberal positions on social issues, said John Hood in National Review Online. That was supposed to prevent the rise of a “momentum candidate,” hand Giuliani Florida, and “bounce most of the Super-Duper Tuesday pinballs into his slot, winning the game.” And “Rudy’s strategy essentially succeeded”—but it worked for McCain.
The thing that sank Giuliani was his failure to find a message beyond 9/11, said Ben Smith and David Paul Kuhn in Politico. “Giuliani's national celebrity was based on his steady, comforting appearance in Americans' living rooms amid the terrorist attacks,” but the “emotional connection” faded with time, and “proved politically worthless.” The era of Sept. 11 politics is over.