John McCain won a personal victory in Florida Tuesday night.
But he still has not won the Republican ideological battle that will continue through Super Tuesday and perhaps deep into February and March.
After the bitterest Republican race since the 2000 South Carolina contest he lost to George W. Bush, McCain prevailed in the Florida Republican primary–and with it the frontrunner status that just six months ago seemed unachievable for the campaign of a maverick who has never been trusted by the party’s base.
Florida gave McCain a clear if hardly overwhelming victory over his chief rival for the GOP nod, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. With most of the votes counted, McCain had 36 percent of the vote. Romney had 31 percent. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who focused his quest for the presidency on Tuesday’s primary, finished with a dismal 15 percent. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who is essentially out of money but can still stir evangelical fervor, was just behind with 14 percent. Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the anti-war libertarian who finished a credible second in the Nevada caucuses, was winning just 3 percent of the Florida vote.
That was the win McCain needed – and with it all of the 57 delegates awarded in the winner-take-all contest.
But it was not the win McCain wanted.
The senator Florida won on the basis of the strong support he received from the state’s relatively large blocs of moderate and liberal Republican primary voters.
Unfortunately for McCain, liberals are most certainly not the definitional players in the Republican nominating process.
Nor are moderates the heart-and-soul of the Republican Party. Conservatives are. And McCain is still struggling to win their loyalty. Indeed, even now, former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett says, “The anger and bitterness toward John McCain is extraordinary among conservatives.”
That’s strong language.
But the fact is that McCain is winning the race for the Republican nomination without the support of the most conservatives.
He did not get it in New Hampshire, where he won the critical first-in-the-nation primary contest with the votes of moderate independents.
He did not get it in South Carolina, where he won the traditionally definitional first southern primary after conservative voters split among Romney, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson.
And he did not get it in Florida, where self-described “conservatives” told exit pollsters that McCain was not their first choice.
Conservatives made up 62 percent of the Republican primary voters in Florida, and they favored Romney over McCain by a 37-27 margin. (The numbers were even more lopsided among social conservatives. Among the 52 percent of Florida primary voters who say abortion should be illegal, Romney won with 35 percent to 27 percent for McCain and 23 percent for Huckabee. Among the 43 percent who said abortion should be legal, McCain got 43 percent to 26 percent for Romney and 20 percent for Giuliani.)
McCain secured his win only because 28 percent of Republican primary voters were moderates, and they favored him 40-22 over Romney.
McCain did even better among the 11 percent of Republican primary voters who, remarkably enough, identified themselves as liberals.
They favored the Arizona senator 46-25 over Romney.
But there are not that many more Republican primaries where self-described “liberals” are going to be a measurable — let alone meaningful — demographic.
That’s why, while McCain was smiling Tuesday night, so was Romney.
As the Giuliani campaign fades to grey – even if “America’s mayor” has not yet formally quit, he was talking about his presidential run in the past tense last night – McCain can hope to pick up a good portion of the moderate vote that went to 9-11 candidate. (He’s expected to pick up Giuliani’s endorsement in California on Wednesday.)
But, if Huckabee slides further, Romney will benefit.
So it was that McCain’s Florida victory speech contained a near-funereal reference to “my dear friend Rudy Giuliani.” The Arizona senator could barely wait to start throwing the dirt on the former New York mayor’s political grave.
At the same time, McCain hailed the “good humor and grace” of the Huckabee campaign, leaving no doubt that he very much hopes it will continue.
Such are the vagaries of the Republican race. John McCain is ahead, and he might just win the nomination. But he has yet to win 40 percent of the vote in a single primary or caucus. McCain has taken the lead because conservatives have been deeply divided – so deeply divided that they may cede their party’s nomination to a maverick they do not trust and they do not currently support.
McCain may yet close the deal. But to do so, as Bill Bennett says, “John McCain still has to talk to conservatives.”