WASHINGTON - John McCain's second consecutive victory in a closely fought primary puts him in the best position of any candidate to take control of his party's presidential campaign next week, when states containing half the country's population go to the polls.
McCain's victory represented a step forward because registered independents, who had favored him in previous states, were not allowed to vote in Florida's Republican primary. But with only 36 percent of the vote, it was a modest enough victory to suggest that GOPers haven't fully accepted McCain as their standardbearer.
But they seem to be getting closer.
"I think this was a make-or-break situation for McCain and he won," said Wayne Lesperance, political scientist at New England College in Henniker, N.H. "I think this win will give him two Big Mo's - momentum and money."
McCain needs to be able to compete in 21 states next Tuesday, facing former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who can dip into his private-equity fortune to finance his campaign. Romney had hoped that his success in the private sector would lead Florida voters to trust him on the economy, but he fell short, trailing McCain even among voters who said the economy was their top concern, exit polls indicated.
Romney vowed to regroup and take his campaign across the country this week, but he is less well-known than McCain and will have to score victories in states where he is currently trailing in the polls to stay close to McCain in numbers of delegates. With leads in delegate-rich states like New York, New Jersey, and his native Arizona, McCain is hoping for a big haul next week.
But it's too early to count Romney out. So far, the race on the Republican side hasn't been seesawing so much as standing still: Whenever a candidate musters the slightest breath of momentum, enough voters move over to another candidate to send him back to the pack.
The Florida contest came after McCain and Romney each claimed a victory on Jan. 19 - Romney by a big margin in the lightly contested Nevada caucuses, McCain by a small margin in the more competitive South Carolina primary. For most of last week, polls suggested the two deadlocked in the Sunshine State.
McCain, however, appears to have been helped by the state's large percentage of older voters, 44 percent of whom were over 60, according to exit polling. They chose McCain, who is 71, over the 60-year-old Romney by a higher percentage than any other age group.
McCain's win gives him a narrow lead in delegates, 93 to 59, though next week's contests could tip the scales in favor of one or the other - or divide up the votes in a way that only fuels the suspicion that most Republicans don't want either candidate.
Of course, it is now already clear that most Republicans don't want Rudy Giuliani or, barring a truly miraculous comeback, Mike Huckabee.
For a few months last year, Giuliani looked like he would breathe some fire into the GOP, redirecting patriotic fervor toward Iran and its nuclear program. But when a new National Intelligence Estimate suggested Iran had not restarted its nuclear program, and voters began focusing on domestic issues, Giuliani took cover under the palm trees of Florida. Here, he vowed, he would make his stand and gain momentum for next week.
It didn't happen. There is some evidence that his liberal social positions and bombastic Big Apple personality made him unsuitable for a party whose center of gravity is the Sunbelt. There is also some evidence that Giuliani's personal life - his dubious friendships and fractious relationships with his ex-wife and their children - struck voters as unpresidential. For whatever reason, his campaign faltered, and he's now all but certain to drop out of the race.
Unlike Giuliani, Huckabee fit the profile of one type of voter that has been moving toward the GOP in recent years: religious Christians who want to use government to ban abortion and gay marriage. Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses and kept his head above water in New Hampshire and Michigan, but then lost narrowly to McCain in South Carolina - a state full of religious conservatives.
The loss helped dry up his fund-raising, leaving his campaign strapped for cash. But even before the money dried up, some observers detected a fly-by-night quality to his campaign.
Huckabee may well stay in the race, but few believe he can win it. Now it's down to two people, and next week McCain will have a chance to make it one.