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Florida gives the GOP a front-runner in John McCain.

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Florida Speaks

Florida gives the GOP a front-runner in John McCain.

Florida became the first real battleground state in the 2008 GOP primary process, with all candidates running hard. All bets were in and the results move the process forward like no other state has before.  Florida spoke loudly tonight giving Senator McCain not only an important and impressive victory and a healthy dose of delegates, but also awarding him official front runner status based on delegate count, momentum and a clean Republican victory in a major state. 

The nomination battle is now largely a two-man race between Sen. McCain and Governor Romney, with Governor Huckabee hanging on in attempt to gather a few more delegates before cashing in.  If he stays in the race, Mayor Giuliani does so with a campaign flat broke, without momentum and on life support.  (Reports are that Giuliani will drop out today and endorse McCain). 

Most interesting was the way the Florida vote broke down with 60 percent of voters describing themselves as conservative, 25 percent very conservative and the economy registering as the top issue.  Given this vote make up, one would have thought Gov. Romney would have had a clean victory over Sen. McCain.

What Happened?

Sen. McCain broadened his message after Romney started attacking him on the economy and he was able to combine an economic response that neutralized the Romney attacks with key endorsements at the 11th hour by popular Florida Governor Charlie Crist and Senator Mel Martinez.  Gov. Crist has a very active voter base, particularly among pro-Second Amendment voters who helped work the phones for Sen. McCain the last few days.  These endorsements, Gov. Crist’s political machine, and Cuban voters in the southern part of the state helped McCain to neutralize Romney’s rallying cry from the right.  But this is not to take anything from Sen. McCain who turned up the conservative rhetoric in the campaign, highlighted his conservative votes in Congress and emphasized economic themes to fend off Romney avoiding the economic issue missteps he made in Michigan.    
 
What Next?

The campaign now goes to Tsunami Tuesday, where 21 states awarding 1023 delegates will vote on February 5.  With a dwindling field and fading candidacies, a McCain-Romney showdown is now set.  The campaign now becomes less about retail politics and more about air waves and airport tarmac news conferences and rallies.  Earned media will be critical and McCain and Romney’s strong showing in Florida, not to mention daily sparring and jockeying over conservative issues, will dominate the national media and local press in these states.  McCain now has the momentum and the front runner status; Romney has less competition for voters, deep pockets and a good organization. 

Up until now, the “anti-McCain vote” (politically speaking) has been splintered between Romney, Huckabee, Thompson and Giuliani.  But with Thompson out, Giuliani probably  out and Huckabee seeming to be politically marginalized, Gov. Romney has more of an opportunity to get Sen. McCain one on one in most Super Tuesday states, setting up a GOP heavyweight sparring match among two candidates who have already shown they are ready to drop the gloves on a flinch.

Super Tuesday states traditionally are band wagon voters, usually going for the presumed front runner so Gov. Romney will have to draw on his wallet in order to overcome the momentum and name ID of Sen. McCain.  If Florida is a microcosm of what is to come, both candidates will continue to battle it out over conservative themes and that is good for conservatives and our eventual nominee.

What to Expect
 
As the race tightens, Sen. McCain will now try to close ranks and solidify the GOP establishment and rank and file voters.  There is still work to be done with this voter base as Romney won Bush voters in Florida according to exit polls.  Consequently, Sen. McCain will parade out GOP endorsements and ratchet up the conservative Republican rhetoric and speak regularly about unity.  He still needs to reach out to conservatives in order to garner enough conservative votes to neutralize Romney’s rallying of the right.  An important note is that Sen. McCain will not be able to rely upon a patriotic, anti-communist and very active Republican Cuban community on Super Tuesday.  This was a pivotal constituency for Sen. McCain in Florida.

Gov. Romney will likely expand his theme to include more rhetoric about cultural values to appeal to social conservatives in key Super Tuesday states.  Evangelical voters splintered in Florida suggesting Gov. Huckabee’s appeal is fading given lack of victories since Iowa.  Romney needs these voters to get past a surging, establishment-adopted McCain.  Romney will also have to continue to reach into his wallet to try to curb the momentum wave McCain has heading into Tsunami Tuesday.  While the race in Florida was close and he was up against not only Sen. McCain but also the Crist and Martinez machine, he significantly outspent McCain with a 9-1 TV advertising advantage. 

While it is impossible yet to know who the nominee will be, two things are now for sure: 

First, Gov. Charlie Crist now goes on the short list for potential Vice Presidential nominees; second, John McCain is the front runner…..for now.

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Written By

Greg Mueller is President of CRC Public Relations, and former senior aide to Republican Presidential Candidates Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes. Mueller also spearheaded communications for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

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