With polls showing them practically tied going into Tuesday's (January 29) pivotal Republican primary in Florida, Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney fought it out until the end, with McCain earning the state's winner-take-all prize of 57 delegates.
In another big Tuesday night development, ABC News reports that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani will drop out of the presidential race and back McCain on Wednesday after placing a disappointing third in the Florida primary. Despite banking on the state in recent weeks, he only earned 15 percent of the Republican vote, significantly trailing McCain (36 percent) and Romney (31 percent).
On the Democratic side, Senator Hillary Clinton won a wide-margin victory over Senator Barack Obama as expected, but as with her prize in Michigan two weeks ago, it was a pyrrhic victory because Florida's 210 Democratic delegates were not in play as a penalty for the state moving up its primary.
Though the Republican party punished Florida — the largest and most diverse state to hold a primary or caucus to date — by halving its allotment of delegates to 57, the contest was winner-take-all, so McCain now has a healthy advantage going into "Super Tuesday" on February 5, when 23 states will hold caucuses or primaries.
For Giuliani, Florida may be remembered as his big mistake. After lavishing nearly all his attention on a state that is the home to millions of current and former New Yorkers, and virtually ignoring all the other early contests, Giuliani came in third, ending any serious chance he had of winning the party's nomination. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who won the Republican caucus in Iowa earlier this month, also suffered a setback, drawing a projected 14 percent of the vote for a fourth-place finish in a state where he was forced to pull back on his spending recently as his resources, and chances for the nomination, dwindled. Long-shot contender Congressman Ron Paul lodged 3 percent of the vote.
McCain won despite once again not drawing large numbers of the Republican Party's core conservative base, an ongoing problem due to its bitter division with the senator over his support of policies ranging from comprehensive immigration reform to his lack of support for some of President Bush's tax cuts. According to CNN's exit polls of the 62 percent of primary voters who identified themselves as conservative, 37 percent voted for Mitt Romney, while only 27 percent went for McCain.
Clearly acknowledging his weakness among the party's core, McCain — flanked by popular Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who voiced his support for the Arizona senator on Saturday — extended several olive branches in his victory speech Tuesday night. In addition to repeatedly mentioning Republican patron saint former President Ronald Reagan, McCain hit a number of conservative talking points, including references to appointing federal judges, reining in government spending and keeping taxes low.
"Our victory might not have reached landslide proportions, but it is sweet nonetheless," he said, accompanied by the now-familiar "Mac is back!" refrain from his supporters. With graceful nods to his competitors, McCain conceded that the margin was not wide enough for him to brag about, or for Romney's supporters to despair, but that it was decisive nonetheless.
"In one week, we will have as close to a national primary as we've ever had in this country," he said, referring to "Super Tuesday." "I intend to win it and be the nominee of our party."
Despite the crushing loss, Giuliani did not announce he was leaving the race in his concession speech, though tellingly, he spoke in the past tense at points. Romney sounded defiant in his address, once more calling for politicians to leave Washington to allow "citizens" to take over.
"At a time like this, knowing how America works is more important than knowing how Washington works," he said, simultaneously touting his business experience and once again taking a shot at McCain. And, less than 24 hours after President Bush gave his final State of the Union address, his name was uttered by both Giuliani and Romney in their speeches Tuesday night, marking rare nods to the party leader who has barely been mentioned during the race to replace him.
The win for McCain came after a week of bitter sniping between him and Romney, with each accusing the other of being a liberal and not having the experience to handle the challenges facing the country. Multimillionaire venture capitalist Romney hammered McCain for his lack of economic experience while campaigning in a state that has been hit particularly hard by the housing-market meltdown. Former Vietnam veteran and Iraq "surge" supporter McCain shot back by questioning Romney's experience on national-security issues, playing to the state's large population of war veterans.
"If you want somebody who understands how Washington works, elect the other guy," Romney said before voters hit the polls, according to MSNBC. "But if you want somebody who knows how the economy works, elect me." McCain hit back by telling his supporters, "The real key here in Florida, is who can keep America safe ... Governor Romney has no experience there," according to CBS News.
On Tuesday, independent Senator Joe Lieberman, who won the Democratic vice-president nomination in 2000 when he ran as Al Gore's second, said despite endorsing McCain in December and campaigning for him in the early primary and caucus states that he would decline the offer to be his running mate. "No, I'd tell him, 'Thanks, John, I've been there, I've done that. You can find much better,' " Lieberman told The Associated Press. "I'm not seeking anything else."
Clinton's win, while largely irrelevant, caps what must have been a difficult week for the candidate, coming after her near-30-plus point loss in South Carolina to Obama on Saturday, as well as his securing the much-coveted endorsement from the Kennedy family on Monday. That was the same day author Toni Morrison, the woman who once called former president Bill Clinton America's "first black president," also gave Obama the thumbs up. The triple shot came amid concerns from the party and former Clinton White House staffers that Bill Clinton's increasingly harsh attacks on Obama were both tarnishing the ex-commander in chief's legacy and possibly imperiling his wife's chances of winning the nomination.
Though the Democratic candidates upheld a pledge not to campaign in Florida prior to the primary, Clinton flew in for a victory speech Tuesday night and told her supporters, "I am thrilled to have had this vote of confidence that you have given me today. I promise you I will do everything I can to make sure not only are Florida's Democratic delegates seated, but Florida is in the winning column for the Democrats in 2008."
In keeping with an emerging trend in this year's election, youth voter turnout for Democrats was again very strong Tuesday, even without strong campaign activity from the candidates. According to information from CIRCLE (The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement), more young people voted in the Democratic primary than the Republican primary — and the turnout for voters under the age of 30 overall tripled compared with previous presidential primary elections. In total, 286,000 voters under the age of 30 came out, representing 13 percent of eligible Florida citizens under 30. Of that total, 150,000 of them voted in the Democratic primary, representing 9 percent of Democratic primary participants, according to early estimates based on day-after vote tallies reported by the media, calculations on youth voters by National Election Pool exit-entrance polls and youth-voter estimates from the Census. CIRCLE also estimated that 134,000 Republican voters aged 18-29 voted in the Republican primary, representing 7 percent of primary participants.
Projections had Clinton winning with 50 percent over Obama (33 percent) and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards (14 percent), who is expected to give a major policy speech on poverty in New Orleans on Wednesday after postponing campaign events in other states, AP reports. Turnout among Democratic voters in the fourth-most-populous state in the country was said to be heavy. Prior to the close of polls, Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman told Reuters that, despite the Democratic National Committee's decision to strip the state of its delegates, she "absolutely" thinks the state's votes will be counted in the end. "Our voices do count, and we're going to be heard, and we're going to vote," she said.
Clinton changed direction last week when she said she wanted the Democratic delegates from Florida and Michigan to be reinstated and counted, which would potentially give her more than 300 toward the 2,025 needed to secure the nomination.
By Sunday night, more than 1 million ballots had been cast in early voting, accounting for 10 percent of the state's roughly 8 million registered voters. The New York Times reported that by Friday night, almost 350,000 Democrats had cast early votes, with more than 400,000 expected by election day, putting the number of voters casting ballots in Florida before polls even opened in excess of the combined turnout in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. On the Republican side, 400,000 early voters weighed in, also more than voted so far in New Hampshire, Iowa and Nevada.
[This story was originally published at 9:33 p.m. ET on 01.29.2008]