Sure, Senator John McCain won the New Hampshire and South Carolina Republican primaries. To purists in the party, however, these victories required a Barry Bonds size asterisk: they were open to non-Republicans. In fact, but for the margins he built up among independents, exit polls show Senator McCain would have lost to former Governor Mitt Romney in New Hampshire and to former Governor Mike Huckabee in South Carolina, in both cases by one percent.
Which makes Senator McCain’s five point victory over Governor Romney in Florida’s Republican-only primary today all the more significant. Not only does Senator McCain win all the state’s delegates, he erases the asterisk.
Ironically for a candidate who is considered an outsider by many Republicans, Senator McCain’s candidacy in the Sunshine State was bolstered by two major establishment endorsements: that of Florida’s Governor Charlie Crist and its Republican U.S. Senator, Mel Martinez.
Florida was fiercely contested by all the Republican candidates and not just as the boost it will promised leading up to next Tuesday, when 19 states will select delegates to the Republican convention. It was also the state in which former Mayor Rudy Giuliani chose to make his stand. After claiming to have sat out of the earlier primaries and caucuses, Mayor Giuliani staked his candidacy on a strong showing in Florida. He failed. Senator McCain received 36 percent of the vote while Governor Romney’s pulled in 31 percent. while Mayor Giuliani is barely holding on to third place with 15 percent of the vote; just ahead of Governor Huckabee’s 14 percent.
As expected, Governor Huckabee has already pledged to continue campaigning through Super Tuesday. After all, Alabama, Georgia and other conservative states, including his home base of Arkansas, are scheduled to vote on February 5th. Even with little cash left Governor Huckabee is likely to pick up a significant number of delegates.
I had thought Mayor Giuliani would stick around another week, too. I figured he should do well in New York and New Jersey at the very least. Yet polls show him trailing Senator McCain in both states — and things are likely to get worse for him. New Yorkers remember that on September 10, 2001, Mayor Giuliani was extremely unpopular. With his poor showing in Florida they also know he won’t be president any time soon. Embarrassing him on his home turf might appeal to some GOP voters while others will simply prefer to cast their vote on a candidate with a real chance.
Losing New York would not only harm his political standing, but, perhaps worse, it would bruise his ego. Someone even mentioned it would be bad for his consulting business, too. The rumor is that he’ll drop out of the race while in California on Wednesday and endorse Senator McCain.
The Republican nomination is rapidly becoming a two person race. While Governor Huckabee will continue to be a factor in some states, in most he’ll finish a distant third. Given his campaign’s financial straits, I’d be surprised if he stays in the race for long after February 5th.
Which means the big question is whether Senator McCain’s asterisk-free momentum can overcome Governor Romney’s bottomless war chest. It will be interesting to watch the answer emerge.