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.