MIAMI - John McCain pulled out a pivotal win over Mitt Romney yesterday in Florida's Republican primary, claiming all the state's delegates and the lead as the two-man nomination race rolls toward Super Tuesday.
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who staked his presidential hopes on Florida, finished a distant, disheartening third. Several networks reported that he plans to drop out of the race and endorse McCain today in California. Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor, was fourth, but plans to stay in the race.
In the biggest, most diverse state yet to vote, McCain edged Romney 36 percent to 31 percent, with 99 percent of precincts reporting last night. More tellingly for McCain, who won with the support of independents in New Hampshire and South Carolina, only registered Republicans could vote in Florida.
"Our victory might not have reached landslide proportions, but it is sweet nonetheless," McCain, whose campaign was declared all but dead last summer, told supporters in Miami. "In one week we will have as close to a national primary as we have ever had in this country. I intend to win it and be the nominee of our party."
Romney vowed to press on, telling his supporters in St. Petersburg, "You worked your hearts out and you made me a contender. And for that, Ann and I and our family will be forever grateful."
Today, the Arizona senator and former Massachusetts governor embark on a breakneck, coast-to-coast race to lock down as many states as possible before next Tuesday, when 21 states hold Republican contests. Many of them, including delegate-rich states such as New York, are winner-take-all, meaning that a candidate could rapidly pile up delegates.
McCain will need to focus on raising enough money to compete with Romney's ability to dip into his personal wealth to finance his campaign.
With Florida's 57 delegates from the winner-take-all contest, McCain seized the overall lead in delegates with 93, compared with 59 for Romney and 40 for Huckabee.
The primary drew legions of voters. The turnout was more than double the 700,000 in the last contested GOP primary, in 2000. McCain fared better among self-described moderates and liberals, veterans, older voters, and Hispanics, while Romney beat him among conservatives, supporters of President Bush, younger voters, and white voters, according to exit polling conducted for the Associated Press and the TV networks.
McCain's victory capped an acrimonious and intense week of campaigning in which both candidates fought to set the agenda. A decorated Vietnam veteran, McCain sought to keep the focus on Iraq and Islamic extremism, calling them the most pressing issues facing the country. But as the financial markets tumbled, Romney, a former venture capitalist, tried to put the focus on the economy and the housing crisis and criticized McCain as a creature of Washington unfit to handle an economic downturn.
McCain, however, narrowly won among voters most concerned about the economy, according to the exit polling.
McCain also enjoyed support from Governor Charlie Crist and Senator Mel Martinez, prominent Florida Republicans who endorsed his candidacy in the final days and then campaigned by his side. McCain was also endorsed by other influential Cuban-American politicians.
The final 48 hours of the campaign was marked by a bitter exchange of accusations. Romney attacked McCain for bucking Republican orthodoxy and joining with prominent Democrats to push energy legislation, campaign finance restrictions, and comprehensive immigration reform. McCain accused Romney of having proposed a date to withdraw troops from Iraq. Both men labeled the other a liberal, underscoring the heated competition for conservative Republican voters.
Romney's campaign relied heavily on its ground operation, guided by many onetime aides to former governor Jeb Bush. Backed by 10,000 volunteers, the Romney campaign cranked out 100,000 phone calls over the weekend and 100,000 Monday, according to Mandy Fletcher, Romney's state director in Florida who is also a former Bush aide.
Giuliani, who spent more time in Florida than any other candidate, based his unconventional strategy on winning the state, after all but skipping the earlier contests. But he sunk in the polls as McCain and Romney rose. A cash-strapped Huckabee, after finishing second behind McCain in South Carolina, pulled back from Florida, where campaigning is expensive. This week, he campaigned in Georgia, which votes Tuesday.
Today, the candidates fly to California for a televised debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
The next phase of the race will be the toughest test yet of their ability to raise money, blanket key markets with ads, and dominate media coverage. Both the McCain and Romney campaigns are poring over polling data, delegate maps, and budgets to help them decide where they should send their candidates and focus their resources.
McCain advisers said the Arizona senator plans to barnstorm the country, stopping for brief events designed to generate television news coverage, a change from the leisurely bus tours and banter with voters that McCain relishes. They made clear they plan to use the momentum from Florida to consolidate their support among Republican loyalists who have sometimes bristled at McCain's stances on immigration, campaign finance reform, and tax cuts.
"No one should question John McCain's impact on Republican primary voters," Kathleen Shanahan, a former chief of staff to Jeb Bush and a McCain adviser, said last night.
Romney advisers said they would try to attract more support from social conservatives and evangelicals who had flocked to Huckabee and Fred Thompson, who dropped out of the race last week.
"Conservatives have got to take a real hard look and realize this is what you have left: You have Mitt Romney and John McCain. And with two left, I think that helps us a lot," Jay Sekulow, a senior Romney adviser, said last night.
Romney aides said they were also encouraged that about 70 percent of the delegates up for grabs on Feb. 5 will be awarded in states like Florida with so-called closed primaries, in which independents cannot vote.
"Closed Republican states will be good for us," said Benjamin L. Ginsberg, Romney's legal adviser. He also said California - which awards the most delegates, 170 - will be a major battleground, although McCain is leading in recent state polls.
Huckabee might also draw support on Feb. 5, despite his scaled-back campaign, depleted coffers, and poor showing in Florida. Last night, he vowed to win Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri - states that Romney is also targeting as part of what his advisers call their "Southern strategy."
"If Mitt could get that vote, he could win the nomination because McCain is overperforming with self-identified independents and moderates and underperforming among the more conservative voters," said Ralph E. Reed Jr., the former head of the Christian Coalition, who is unaffiliated with the campaign. "The challenge for Mitt, of course, is that he has not been able so far to get that all behind him. It's been kind of divided."
Reed said Huckabee could continue to draw conservative voters who would otherwise back Romney.
"He's going to be a factor as long as he stays in the race because he's got a built-in base among social conservatives and self-identified evangelicals," Reed said. "The question will be, if it's a winner-take-all state, you do tend to see voters engage in strategic voting. They start to slide off of candidates that they don't think can compete."
Last night, Huckabee told his supporters in St. Louis that he was in the race for good.
"We're going all nine innings of this ballgame," Huckabee said.