IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

McCain takes Florida primary over Romney

Sen. John McCain won Florida's Republican primary on Tuesday, apparently driving Rudy Giuliani from the race . NBC reported Giuliani will end his campaign and endorse McCain on Wednesday.
Image: John McCain Attends Florida Primary Night Event
John McCain speaks as his wife, Cindy, looks on during a post-primary rally in Miami on Tuesday. McCain defeated Mitt Romney in a close race. Rudy Giuliani ran a distant third.Marc Serota / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Sen. John McCain won Florida's Republican primary on Tuesday, apparently ending Rudy Giuliani's hopes for the GOP presidential nomination and taking a critical victory over Mitt Romney in the battle for momentum as the campaign turns to Super Tuesday.

Giuliani will endorse McCain on Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., a senior member of his campaign told NBC News late Tuesday.

NBC news analyst Howard Fineman reported that sources told him the two campaigns were negotiating details of the deal.

"The responsibility of leadership doesn't end with a single campaign, it goes on and you continue to fight for it," Giuliani said in Orlando, Fla., as supporters with tight smiles crowded behind him. "We ran a campaign that was uplifting."

Asked directly if he was dropping out of the race, Giuliani said only: "I'm going to California."

In the Democrats' primary — a nonbinding contest in which no delegates were at stake — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton finished with the most votes.

Full circle for McCain's candidacy
McCain, meanwhile, solidified his status as the front-runner for the GOP nomination, his candidacy having come full circle in little more than a year.

With nearly all of Florida's 6,913 precincts reporting, McCain had 36 percent of the vote, and Romney had 31 percent. Giuliani was third, Mike Huckabee fourth and Texas Rep. Ron Paul fifth. McCain picked up all 57 of Florida's national convention delegates, the biggest prize so far in an early round of primaries and caucuses.

“Our victory might not have reached landslide proportions, but it is sweet nonetheless,” he told raucous supporters in Miami. Earlier, he told The Associated Press that the win in Florida "shows one thing. I'm the conservative leader who can unite the party."

He was mindful of the challenges ahead, saying: "It's a very significant boost, but I think we've got a tough week ahead and a lot of states to come."

Romney, who has spent millions of dollars of his personal fortune to run for the White House, vowed to stay in the race.

"At a time like this, America needs a president in the White House who has actually had a job in the real economy," he told supporters in St. Petersburg.

He issued a call to arms to conservatives to support him, vowing to cut federal spending, end illegal immigration and teach children "that before they have babies, they should get married."

Despite his fourth-place finish in Florida, Huckabee said he was looking ahead to Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, when there are 21 GOP contests.

“We’re playing all nine innings of this ball game,” he told supporters during a campaign stop in St. Louis on Tuesday night. The selection process is “not even close to being over. We’re just really getting started.”

No delegates at stake for Democrats
The Democratic primary was controversial by its very existence, held earlier in the year than national party officials had wanted. That made it a popularity contest with no delegates awarded on the basis of the outcome. Clinton had the most votes, with Sen. finishing second, and former Sen. third.

All the Democratic candidates agreed in advance not to campaign in the state. Clinton, who was routed in the South Carolina primary last weekend, repeatedly sought to draw attention to an event she expected to win. Without success, she challenged her rivals to agree to heed the results when it came time to seat delegates at next summer's Democratic National Convention.

Florida marked the end of one phase of the campaign, the last in a series of single-state contests.

The campaign goes national next week, with 21 states holding primaries and caucuses on Tuesday and 1,023 party convention delegates at stake for the Republicans.

McCain's Florida victory was another step in one of the most remarkable political comebacks of recent times. McCain entered the race the front-runner, then found his campaign unraveling last summer as his stands in favor of the Iraq War and a controversial immigration bill proved unpopular.

The war gradually became less of a concern after President Bush's decision to increase troop deployments began to produce results. McCain also sought to readjust his position on immigration.

By the time of the New Hampshire primary, he was primed for victory, and got it. He won the South Carolina primary last week, taking first place in the state that had snuffed out his presidential hopes in 2000.

McCain's victory was his first primary win in a state that allowed only Republicans to vote. His previous triumphs, in New Hampshire and South Carolina this year and in two states in 2000, came in elections open to independents. He campaigned with the support of the state's two top Republican elected officials, Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. Mel Martinez.

Romney's only primary win so far was in Michigan, a state where he grew up and claimed a home-field advantage. He also has caucus victories to his credit in Wyoming and Nevada.

Economy is on voters' minds
A survey of voters as they left their polling places showed the economy was the top issue for nearly half the Republican electorate. Terrorism, the war in Iraq and immigration followed in importance.

Not surprisingly in a state that is a magnet for retirees, more than one-third of the voters were 65 or older.

McCain benefited from the support of self-described moderates, as well as Hispanics and older voters. Romney was favored by voters opposed to abortion and opposed to easing the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

The poll was conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International for NBC News, the other television networks and The Associated Press.

McCain, Romney trade insults
Romney began the evening with 59 Republican delegates, to 36 for McCain and 40 for Huckabee. Giuliani had one.

McCain and Romney clashed early and often, in personal appearances and paid television advertising, in a bruising week of campaigning in Florida. The former Massachusetts governor said his career as a private businessman made him perfectly suited to sit in the Oval Office with a recession looming. McCain argued he knew his economics well enough, and that his career in the military and in Congress made him the man to steer the country in an age of terrorism.

By the campaign's final hours, the two men hurled insults at one another, each saying the other hoped to travel a liberal road to the presidential nomination in a party of conservatives.

Romney attacked McCain for his signature legislation to reduce the role of money in politics, for his position on immigration and for his support of an energy bill that he said would have driven up consumer costs.

"If you ask people, 'look at the three things Senator McCain has done as a senator,' if you want that kind of a liberal Democrat course as president, then you can vote for him," Romney told campaign workers. "But those three pieces of legislation, those aren't conservative, those aren't Republican, those are not the kind of leadership that we need as we go forward."

McCain had a ready reply. "On every one of the issues he has attacked us on, Mitt Romney was for it before he was against it," he said.

"The truth is, Mitt Romney was a liberal governor of Massachusetts who raised taxes, imposed with Ted Kennedy a big government mandate health care plan that is now a quarter of a billion dollars in the red, and managed his state's economy incompetently, leaving Massachusetts with less job growth than 46 other states."

That wasn't all, either.

McCain aired radio commercials criticizing Romney, and his campaign Web site has an ad superimposing Romney's face on the image of a windsurfing Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.

The Romney campaign also reported numerous negative phone calls, accusing him incorrectly of supporting taxpayer-funded abortions, opposing President Bush's tax cuts and favoring direct talks with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The McCain campaign said it was not responsible for the calls.