The Stars Align For John McCain
7:33 pm PST -- The Path Forward
John McCain has won a somewhat larger than expected victory in Florida. It's the first time he's won a closed Republicans-only primary. And it came at the best possible time.
As others have already reported, Rudy Giuliani -- as I foreshadowed some hours ago -- is pulling out of the race. Further, he will endorse McCain tomorrow in California at the Reagan Library, site of tomorrow night's Republican debate. McCain and Giuliani are friends, and among his top advisors are people with a mutual history working with George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger, so the arrangement was there to be had.
Mike Huckabee is staying in the race. He likes McCain, and will be drawing votes that might otherwise go to Romney. As Giuliani was doing to McCain.
Romney is continuing in the race, but the planets are coming into alignment for John McCain. In the exit polling, he was overwhelmingly the pick of Florida Republicans as the most electable, including a great many who didn't vote for him in the primary. He won among conservatives, narrowly, and moderates, losing only among very conservative voters.
McCain leads in most of the big Super Tuesday states, including California and New York. California has been pretty close in some polls with Romney, but I've learned that he has just cancelled a scheduled stop in Northern California tomorrow prior to the debate outside LA.
The economy was the biggest issue in Florida, which many thought would make Romney, the super-rich venture capitalist and architect of the successful 2002 Winter Olympics, the favorite. But McCain won the plurality of economic voters. And was the choice of those who want a president with strong national security credentials.
McCain bet big on the US military surge in Iraq, banging away on the Rumsfeld strategy years ago, pushing and pushing, as General Norman Schwarzkopf recalled again last week. At first, that cost McCain big with the independents and moderates who had boosted him in the past. Then he melted down with conservatives over his advocacy of a new immigration policy.
But the surge has been successful, as it should be, since America has the finest armed forces in the world. It is no panacea, it is time limited and thus requires deft politicking to make the overall strategy work in the end. But McCain, given his history on the policy -- not to mention his own history as a famed Vietnam War hero and entertaining maverick senator with decades of foreign policy experience -- is the best Republican to defend America's ongoing presence in Iraq.
So tomorrow, McCain receives the endorsement of Rudy Giuliani, once a top Ronald Reagan appointee, at the Reagan Library. McCain himself entered politics as a Southwestern war hero, friendly with the Reagans.
Nancy Reagan herself -- accompanied by Arnold Schwarzenegger -- will provide her imprimatur for tomorrow night's Reagan Library debate.
The atmospherics will be fascinating.
6:19 pm PST -- AP Calls Florida -- It's McCain
John McCain, with a consistent four-point lead over Mitt Romney with more than half the vote counted, has been declared the winner of the Florida Republican presidential primary by the Associated Press.
The early and late media exit polls all gave McCain a slight edge.
6:02 pm PST -- Nets Cut Away from Hillary's Victory Speech
Hillary Clinton staged an elaborate victory rally tonight, in a non-existent contest.
Important for her to change the storyline of the past several days -- big South Carolina loss to Obama, Kennedys come out for Obama, Bill Clinton seen as misbehaving -- Hillary seized on a vote that has no meaning. No delegates awarded, everyone agreed not to campaign there.
I'm told the exit polls show that people who decided in the last month actually picked Obama.
Be that as it may, CNN and Fox News cut away quickly from Hillary's speech. MSNBC cut away as well, just a little bit later, with some quips from the talking heads.
Meanwhile, John McCain is holding a very slight edge in the real primary of the night, the Republican primary, similar to the numbers I gave you a couple of hours ago.
5:58 pm PST -- Thoughts
Correspondent Jim Lynch checks in with these thoughts, while John McCain continues to hold a slim lead over Mitt Romney with nearly half the vote counted in the Florida Republican primary.
Many people that I've talked to today have said that turnout in their local precinct has been light, but heavier than expected for a primary. The early numbers that I've seen appear to echo that observation. No one mentioned any delays or long lines, but most said that there were some lines and active voting sites.
Nearly everyone received some sort of call within the last few days from multiple candidates. I was told of calls from McCain, Romney, and Giuliani but didn't hear of anyone getting a call from the Huckabee or Paul. My own observation as I was out and about today was a decided Romney advantage in yard signs. In the area I traveled I saw a small handful of Huckabee signs and one Ron Paul sign. All the rest were Romney's.
The voting that I know about is all over the place. One couple split their votes between Clinton and Obama. Several people that I know who were planning to vote for Fred Thompson ended up marking their ballot for Mitt Romney. Two folks at work got into a discussion over they way they voted. He saying that his vote went for Hillary Clinton and was just amazed that She didn't agree. She argued that Hillary's years in the White House did not equate with experience. She was one of the Thompson supporters that broke for Romney.
Without exception everyone I talked to was reluctant to make any prediction regarding the final outcome. The consensus opinion was "too close to call." Even those with a strong feeling for their candidate avoided declaring a victory.
4:02 pm PST -- Early Florida Exits...
Early exit polls indicate a tight race between John McCain and Mitt Romney. The horse race numbers: McCain 34.6%, Romney 33%.
The Republican electorate is more self-described conservative than in the past. With six in 10 calling themselves conservative. Three out of 10 Republicans called themselves moderates. One out of seven called themselves independents, though the primary is for registered Republicans. In earlier tracking polls, McCain had an edge with conservatives, while Romney had a big edge with very conservative Republicans.
47% said the economy is the most important issue. The other three choices offered were terrorism, Iraq, and immigration, each of which was picked by less than 20%. A third of Republicans rated that economy as good. Only one-seventh of Republican voters described the economy as poor.
Over a third of the Republican voters were 65 years of age and up. 80% white, 12% Latino, of whom about half are Cuban.
2:36 pm PST -- Rudy's Final Day...
So, oddly, this may be the final day of Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign. Or not. He is scheduled to participate in tomorrow's Republican presidential debate in California, at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley outside Los Angeles. Yet he may also make a different sort of announcement.
But today, he closed out his campaign in Florida, his firewall state, where he was to jump-start his candidacy after being a non-factor in the early contests. There his once seemingly commanding lead has evaporated, and the battle is between his friend John McCain and Mitt Romney, while the former New York mayor himself is fighting it out with Mike Huckabee for a rather distant third.
The hero of 9/11 likes to campaign before big crowds -- such as the lecture audiences which made him quite wealthy -- and in cafes and diners. So, with the Florida crowds sharply diminished, mostly off to see the upstart Romney and the politically resurrected McCain -- Giuliani had a relatively quiet day today, focused on the sort of cafes he likes in Sunny Isles Beach and Del Ray Beach, and a visit to his Broward County headquarters in Pompano Beach.
Tonight he has an election night party, which he had until recently hoped would be his victory party, at Loews Portofino Hotel at Universal Orlando.
It's too soon to say what he does tomorrow, for it's not clear what will happen tonight. But one thing is for sure. It's not what he planned.
2:15 pm PST -- Obama Raise, and Moves...
While we wait for some inkling as to tonight's Florida Republican primary results ... And remembering that Florida is divided into two time zones, with the easternmost in the Eastern time zone.
The somewhat reclusive Caroline Kennedy, who had not endorsed a presidential candidate since her uncle Teddy ran in 1980, and surfaced for a rare rally appearance only yesterday after her Sunday New York Times op-ed entitled "A Presidenti Like My Father," has already made her first TV ad for Barack Obama.
It begins airing shortly, in the first round, in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York You will note the prominent use of footage of JFK, and an astronaut planting an American flag on the moon.
Somehow, I think this move with the Kennedys has been in the works for more than a few days.
The Obama campaign announced that it has raised over $5 million on its web site since Obama crushed Hillary Clinton Saturday night in the South Carolina primary
11:23 am PST -- Democrats Duel
Meanwhile, even though the Florida primary was uncontested by the Democratic candidates per party rules -- discussed in the opener column below -- the Democrats are very active today as they continue their duel in advance of next week's Super-Duper Tuesday. With claims, attacks, and big name endorsements.
In the wake of her big loss in South Carolina on Saturday, not to mention the endorsement yesterday by the Kennedys of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton is trying to get credit for a Florida win tonight. She'll show up there tonight, and hope the media pays attention to her in the midst of the hard-fought drama of the Romney-McCain battle.
On a conference call earlier with Obama campaign manager David Plouffe to discuss the lay of the land in next week's contests, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry jumped on the phone to jump on the Clintons for trying to spin a "victory" in Florida.
"Everyone agreed," said Kerry, "not to campaign in Florida. There are no delegates at stake in Florida. There is no contest in Florida. This attempt by the Clinton campaign is the sort of sleight of hand that voters rejected over the weekend in South Carolina."
For her part, Hillary Clinton held a conference call at which she unveiled her major endorsement of early in the week. That is LA Congresswoman Maxine Waters. A fiery African-American liberal, Waters said she is for Clinton rather than Obama because "Hillary has always been there for us. She knows how to get things done."
Clinton herself expressed great pleasure at receiving the endorsement of Waters, who was one of former President Bill Clinton's most impassioned defenders when he was impeached a decade ago.
The Obama campaign also announced new endorsements, including Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva and a major pick-up, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sibelius.
Sibelius, the latest major red state Democrat to back Obama, delivered the Democratic response to last night's State of the Union addresss.
10:46 am PST -- Cuba Libre
I reported in the kick-off column early this morning that Mitt Romney was hit by a late-breaking robocall saying he wants to normalize relations with Castro's Cuba. And that the McCain campaign denies being behind it.
Correspondent Henry Louis Gomez reports on this: "Cuba is shaping up to once again an important issue in Florida electoral politics. In the final hours prior to the Florida primaries, Governor Romney's campaign accused Senator McCain of launching "robo-calls" that accused Romney of being potentially soft on Castro. The allegation was made by Al Cardenas, Romney's state campaign chair and former Florida Republican Party Chair.
"Cardenas says the claims made in the robo-calls are 'despicable.'"
McCain was endorsed late last week by Florida's leading Cuban-American politician, U.S. Senator Mel Martinez. And previously garnered the support of three Cuban-American members of Congress from the Miami area. Martinez's base is elsewhere in the state.
10:23 am PST -- From The Inside Out
Sources in both leading Republican campaigns, John McCain and Mitt Romney, report a record turnout in Florida. And optimism. Tempered optimism.
One campaign sounds a little less sure. That would be the one that seemed to be heading to victory until Governor Charlie Crist endorsed his friend McCain. And before the national security issue moved back center stage, though more voters say they are worried about the economy.
President Bush, inadvertently, to be sure, may have helped his old rival McCain a little bit with his heavy emphasis in his final State of the Union address last night on Iraq and the long Terror War.
And all those rough things that are being done to the various candidates? Well, that's hardball politics.
9:24 am PST -- Final Rasmussen Track
The final Rasmussen tracking poll in Florida, which previously favored Mitt Romney, now has the race dead even. John McCain 31%, Mitt Romney 31%, Rudy Giuliani 16%, Mike Huckabee 11%.
Although a plurality of Republican voters named economic insecurity the top issue, a slender majority said that it's more important to have a president who masters national security issues rather than a master of the economy.
43% chose the economy as the top issue, while 28% picked Iraq and or national security as the top issue. 52% said it's more important to have a national security expert as president, while 35% picked the economic expert option.
The Rasmussen poll showed the same slight trend to McCain as did the Zogby poll for Reuters., albeit with slightly different results, since McCain actually leads, narrowly, in the Zogby poll.
A very important difference in methodology. The Rasmussen poll is done with an automated system. It's a "robopoll." The Zogby track uses human interviewers.
08:30 am PST -- Sunshine State Signs II
Correspondent Patrick Cox notes the near dead heat nature of the latest tracking polls in the race between John McCain and Mitt Romney, but points out that -- unlike past McCain victories -- Florida has a closed primary in which independents are not allowed to vote. And that, although McCain has the backing of popular Governor Charlie Crist, most of the old Jeb Bush operation, which he calls "extremely good" is working on behalf of Romney.
Correspondent Jim Lynch notes that in his Polk County, most of the absentee ballots requested by voters had already been returned.
Turnout there, as around the state, is being driven not only by the presidential primary, but also by a property tax cut measure, which accounts for the encouragement for Florida Democrats to vote from the party leaders.
Lynch reports that Polk County elections officials predict a 25% turnout, significantly higher than the 19% turnout in the 2004 primary.
07:34 am PST -- Sunshine State Signs
Correspondent Henry Louis Gomez notes a number of things: As has been widely reported, the DNC has penalized Florida Democrats by refusing to seat Florida's delegates at the national convention because Florida moved its primary date up against DNC wishes. The candidates have taken pledges not to campaign in Florida (though Hillary Clinton held a fund raiser in Miami Beach on Sunday that generated a lot of free media coverage). What hasn't been reported as much is that the Florida Democratic leadership is urging Democrats to go out and vote anyway; they are claiming that they expect all of Florida's Democratic delegates to be seated when the convention rolls around.
The RNC also penalized Florida Republicans by halving Florida's delegates to the GOP convention to 57. As a result Florida's Republicans decided to give all 57 delegates to the winner rather than having a proportional distribution of delegates.
Even with the penalties, turnout figures to be substantial because there's a state constitutional amendment regarding property taxes on the ballot. Proponents call it a reform, I won't be so kind. Additionally here in Miami-Dade County we have a slot machine initiative on the ballot that would expand gambling at three county parimutuel facilities.
Florida is sizing up to be the most important primary to date in this season. Truly closed primaries in the 4th most populous state in the country and a swing state at that.
Correspondent Jim Lynch says: I was one of the first dozen people in line at my small precinct. Polk County is the largest county, geographically, in Florida and has a decidedly rural demographic. I live in one of the smaller towns in Polk County that is in between the county seat of Bartow, Lakeland, and Winter Haven. Turnout at the opening was slow, but had already started to pick up by the time I was leaving. In addition to the presidential choices Floridians are voting on an amendment 1, which is being heavily promoted by Republican Governor Charile Crist. The amendment, which deals with the homestead tax rate, is likely to be a factor in voter turnout.
06:16 am PST -- Game Day: Florida
It's game day in Florida, a pivotal primary in the Republican presidential race between John McCain and Mitt Romney. McCain had upward momentum in late tracking polls after faltering some a few days ago as Romney campaigned on growing economic insecurity. I'll be covering throughout the day with correspondents and contacts in and out of the state.
In the final Zogby tracking poll for Reuters, McCain leads Romney, 35% to 31%. Rudy Giuliani, who once had a huge lead in Florida, where he chose to make his stand, and Mike Huckabee are fighting it out for a distant third place with 13% each.
Meanwhile, as I reported in a column over a week ago, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is considering an endorsement in the race before California votes next week. He's friendly with McCain.
Somewhat amusingly, both Romney and McCain - who most outside observers would count as conservative Republicans of one sort or another - crisscrossed Florida yesterday attacking one another as "liberals." Romney denounced McCain for working with Democrats on immigration policy, campaign finance, and anti-greenhouse gas legislation, which he said would wreck the economy. McCain denounced Romney as a consummate flip-flopper who raised taxes as Massachusetts governor and crafted a universal health care program that's running heavily in the red.
And that's the nice part.
Proponents and opponents of both campaigns are unloading on one another in the relatively balmy Sunshine State.
Remember that Bill Clinton statement at the end of last week about how McCain and Hillary are supposedly such close friends and would conduct a milquetoast campaign against one another? The recording of Clinton saying that is featured in a robocall from the Romney campaign attacking McCain. You know the machiavellian former president, out to make mischief on the Republican side with conservatives predisposed to do the opposite of what he says, is anything but surprised by that.
Another robocall attacks Romney for supposedly wanting to normalize relations with Fidel Castro. No one's claiming credit for that, naturally. One consultant in the race describes it as "a knife fight."
On the conventional evidence, not only should Romney not be in some trouble in the race, he should be running away with it.
Romney, according to Neilsen ratings, has run 10 times as many TV ads in Florida as has McCain over the course of the entire campaign.
McCain, with money finally flooding back into his once empty coffers, has been somewhat competitive of late on the air, though he is still heavily outgunned by the super-rich Romney. But where he has really battled back is with personal campaigning with fellow Vietnam War heroes and military commanders, such as General Norman Schwarzkopf of Gulf War fame, and two formidable endorsements, those of popular Florida Governor Charlie Crist and Senator Mel Martinez.
Countering that, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh says a McCain nomination would ruin the Republican Party.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, there is no competition. The Democratic National Committee invalidated the primary because the state went ahead of the party's sequence of contests, and all the candidates agreed not to campaign there. Nevertheless, even though none of her opponents are there and no delegates are being awarded, Hillary Clinton will attempt to gin up the appearance of a victory tonight when she shows up in Florida after the voting. She's led from the beginning in Florida polls, and with nothing at stake was never challenged there by Obama or John Edwards, unlike the hard-fought contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, which resulted in a split decision between the two frontrunners.
Clinton is seeking to counter her 2 to 1 loss in South Carolina over the weekend and the dramatic endorsement of Obama yesterday by the leading members of the Kennedy family. She is also seeking to turn the page, as it were, on criticism of her husband's controversial behavior in campaigning for her.
While Obama did a full round of network interviews last night following President Bush's final State of the Union address, Clinton did one, with NBC, then cancelled the rest.
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