McCain, Romney left standing in GOP race

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published January 30, 2008

Who are the big winners in Florida? It's easier to see the losers.

It's now a two-man race for the Republican nomination, with John McCain the front-runner. Florida Republicans effectively cleared Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee from the field.

But neither McCain nor Mitt Romney leaves the Sunshine State looking dauntingly strong. In the first state primary where only Republicans were allowed to weigh in on the GOP nomination, nearly two thirds preferred someone else.

The increasingly venomous McCain vs. Romney contest heads into "Super Tuesday" next week with a McCain advantage because he leads in such delegate-rich states as California, New York and New Jersey. The prospect of a Giuliani endorsement of McCain would be a huge boost, but McCain still lacks the money that multimillionaire Romney has at his disposal.

And day after day, McCain has conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and George Will trashing him as a disaster for the GOP. That a lavishly funded Republican like Romney can't beat someone widely loathed by much of the conservative base says at least as much about Romney's weakness as a candidate as it does about McCain's resiliency.

Meanwhile, given the way they've shunned Democratic voters in this swing state, Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodam Clinton are on the verge of kissing off Florida's 27 electoral votes. Almost every other day the Obama campaign has released memos basically treating Democratic primary voters as lepers whose voices are irrelevant.

More Democrats voted in Florida Tuesday than in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina combined, and Obama continues belittling those Florida voters at his peril.

Clinton showed up alongside Sen. Bill Nelson in Broward County to thank Florida voters for her big win Tuesday night: "This has been a record turnout because Floridians wanted their voices to be heard," she said. "I promise I'll do everything I can not only to make sure that Florida Democratic delegates are seated but that Florida is in the winning column in 2008."

Come on. Her Florida rally was a transparent effort to spin the state of the race and halt Obama's momentum more than genuine outreach to Florida Democrats who stand to have no delegates at the national convention in August.

"For the last four months, she has boycotted Florida just like every other Democratic presidential candidate. Hillary didn't say a word about seating our delegation," noted Democratic strategist Chris Hand of Jacksonville. "Now, after a landslide loss in South Carolina, she suddenly wants Florida to matter again. That's trying to have it both ways."

The national Democratic Party stripped Florida of all its delegates because state leaders eager for more influence in the nominating processes moved the primary earlier than allowed by national party rules.

Tuesday was a great night for Gov. Charlie Crist, who not only saw his tax initiative overcome the tough 60 percent hurdle for passage, but saw his last-minute endorsement of McCain pay off. Weeks from now, people may point to Crist's McCain endorsement as the pivotal moment that led the Arizona senator to the presidential nomination. Get ready to hear a lot of speculation about vice president Crist.

What can we say about Giuliani, who pretty much moved to Florida? Thanks for all the love, Mr. Mayor.

He ran a good campaign here, targeting early voters and stressing pocketbook issues that matter to Floridians. It's not that we're lemmings in the Sunshine State, but voters want to see viability and losing state after state prior to Florida made Giuliani look like a wasted vote.

"Rudy did not have one big story in the last eight weeks when everybody else was having big stories," Tampa media consultant and former Giuliani adviser Adam Goodman said. "I think that really hurt."

Giuliani's downward spiral put McCain over the top in Florida, and an endorsement of McCain could do even more.

"If Rudy endorses John McCain today, we have a nominee, I do believe," said David Johnson, a Republican consultant in Tallahassee. "Florida winnowed. Mitt can fight on, but those numbers are hard to overcome."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.