John McCain won Florida. Rudy Giuliani headed for the exits. And Mike Huckabee stayed put.
None of those things are good for Mitt Romney, McCain’s chief rival, who spent a small fortune of his own money to get this close to the White House.
Tuesday’s election means:
• McCain now has the momentum heading into next week’s 21-state delegate chase.
• The Arizona senator picks up Giuliani’s endorsement and, presumably, the moderate and independent voters who had backed the former New York mayor, especially in the delegate-rich Northeast.
• Huckabee continues to siphon conservative voters from Romney — and may be jockeying for a spot on the GOP ticket.
It all adds up to front-runner status for McCain, the Vietnam War hero who was rejected by the GOP in 2000 and is only now being embraced — however reluctantly — by establishment Republicans who can’t afford to walk away from a winner.
“It shows one thing,” McCain told The Associated Press. “I’m the conservative leader who can unite the party.”
It shows one more thing: Romney stands alone, and in trouble.
Romney can’t be written off, not with millions of dollars in his personal bank account and an issue — the economy — that should resonate. But exit polls suggest that McCain has figured out how to beat the former Massachusetts governor.
The Arizona senator won among voters who cited the economy as their top issue.
He won among voters who are dissatisfied or angry with President Bush.
He won among voters who consider themselves independents.
Nearly seven of every 10 voters said McCain was the most likely GOP candidate to beat the Democratic nominee in November.
By nearly a 2-1 margin, McCain beat Romney on the question of who is most qualified to be the next commander in chief.
He ran even with Romney among voters who identified themselves as Republicans, a supposed Romney strong suit.
“At a time like this,” Romney said, “America needs a president in the White House who has actually had a job in the real economy.”
That may be true, but Florida Republicans narrowly decided that the guy they want in the White House didn’t need to be an ex-CEO like Romney.
McCain was both gracious and sly in his acceptance address.
“You fought hard for your candidate,” he told Romney and his supporters. “And the margin that separated us tonight surely isn’t big enough for me to brag about or for you to despair.”
“Governor Huckabee and his supporters, as always, brought to this campaign conviction and passion and something we don’t always have enough of in these contests: good humor and grace,” McCain said. “Thank you, Governor Huckabee.”
Translation: “Thank you, Mike, for staying in the race despite another drubbing.” McCain likes the fact that Huckabee cuts into Romney’s conservative base. The former Arkansas governor overwhelmingly won among Florida Republicans who said they attend church more than once a week.
Nearly a third of evangelical voters sided with Huckabee, with Romney and McCain splitting the rest.
A former Southern Baptist minister who knows how to speak to middle-class voters bitten by the bad economy, Huckabee would be on McCain’s short list for the vice presidential nomination.
But, not so fast. Romney isn’t out of this yet.
If money can buy an election, the former Massachusetts governor has enough to pay the tab. Just as important, Romney is comfortable talking about the economy (McCain is not) and is not a creature of Washington (McCain is).
“Washington is fundamentally broken,” Romney told supporters. “And we’re not going to change Washington by sending the same people back just to sit in different chairs.”
It doesn’t take an MBA to figure out who Romney is talking about.
Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press for nearly 20 years.