A Front-Runner, at Last

McCain’s victory and Giuliani’s catastrophe.

John McCain

As a fighter pilot in Pensacola, Fla., 30 years ago, McCain and his exotic-dancer girlfriend dropped by the dinner party of some married ensigns and were greeted with “disbelief and alarm.” They left quickly. This week as he tried to crash his way into the nomination of a party from which he has often broken, his mother predicted Republicans would have to “hold their nose” to vote for her son.

The nose held, and McCain won Florida by a nose, edging Romney by just a few points. In the final moments of the Florida campaign, both candidates accused each other in the harshest terms yet of being closet liberals. Now McCain can argue (barely) that he has crossed an important GOP hurdle: He won in a contest where only Republicans and not independents and Democrats could participate. The GOP might finally give him a membership card—or at least a visitor’s pass.

Now McCain can expect an influx of money from supporters and a hail of attacks from that portion of the GOP establishment that despises him. The race has shaken out, and it’s now down to just Romney and McCain. While McCain has the momentum and will inherit most of Giuliani’s supporters when he drops out, Romney, who can spend his own money, will now benefit from all of those Republicans who McCain has pissed off over the years. Already David Bossie, longtime GOP operative denounced by members of both parties in the past, is behind an ad campaign airing on Fox that compares McCain to Hillary Clinton. Rush Limbaugh is already on Romney’s side, and Tom DeLay will no doubt come out of retirement with a broken beer bottle.

Romney continues to get a dismal return on his investment dollars. He outspent McCain 10 to one on Florida advertising and built a far more sophisticated (and expensive) grass-roots and fund-raising operation. McCain had virtually no infrastructure in Florida since his campaign ran out of money over the summer.

There was a cost to the McCain victory. He hurled his toughest and most distorted charges at Mitt Romney in the final days of the contest, claiming Romney had supported a withdrawal from Iraq in April 2007. The charge had only passing acquaintance with the truth and obscured McCain’s true point, which was that Romney was trying to proceed gingerly at a politically delicate time rather than taking McCain’s aggressive forward posture about the surge.

The McCain team thinks that because Romney is a flip-flopper and has a lot of money to spend on ads attacking McCain (with claims that are sometimes barely true), they can lean on the facts a little harder to redress the balance. McCain and his team also can’t stand the essential phoniness they see in Romney, but this withdrawal attack wasn’t a clean shot. McCain already seemed to be repairing the breach in his victory speech where he praised his opponent. “I offer my best wishes to Governor Romney and his supporters. You fought hard for your candidate and the margin that separates us tonight surely isn’t big enough for me to brag about or for you to despair.”

Whether the McCain attacks were fair or not, they do appear to have been wildly successful in putting Romney on the defensive and diminishing his ability to talk about the economy in the way he wanted to. That may explain why, according to exit polls, McCain beat Romney among the 50 percent of voters who said the economy was their most important issue by 38 percent to 35 percent. McCain was seen to be the weaker candidate on the issue of the economy both because he knows the issue terrain less well (which he used to admit before it became Topic A) and because Romney had a long career in the business world. Another explanation may be that McCain’s relentless attack on pork barrel spending may have worked for him, validating his long-held theory that spending restraint has always been the key economic issue among most GOP voters.

Where McCain took a considerable hit from Republicans was among the voters who said immigration was their top concern. Romney picked up 45 percent of their support; McCain won just 22 percent. Romney no doubt will hammer that theme over the next six days before Super Tuesday.

Rudy Giuliani finished a distant third in the state where he staked his entire campaign. Months ago he had a huge lead in the polls in Florida, but like those impressive hurricanes that build offshore, he steadily downgraded to tropical storm Rudy. By today, he was little more than a spritzing. There is some debate about the value of momentum in this year’s campaign season, but after big losses in the first six contests, Giuliani’s defeat has confirmed that you can’t have no-mentum. There are many factors that doomed the Giuliani campaign nationally—fears about security receded as a national issue, his personal drama kept tripping him up, and he never seemed to really want the office—but the message from Florida was that the more he met voters, the less they liked him. The more he campaigned, the more he went down in the polls.

Giuliani may still have a big role to play, if he quickly endorses his friend John McCain, as seems likely. He has long said that if he weren’t running, he would support McCain. Now he has a chance to pick a president.