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McCain Surges on Strength of Florida Win

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

It's worth pausing a moment to recall that a few months ago Senator John McCain's presidential campaign was sliding in the polls, almost broke, and widely written off. Now he is the winner of the Florida primary and the Republican front-runner. Democrats had little at stake in Florida last night. Nobody campaigned there because it was considered too early.

The Republican contest was very different, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: For John McCain, the victory in Florida means a huge boost in delegates, momentum and much needed fundraising heading into the Super Tuesday contest in more than 20 states next week. McCain told supporters in Miami last night to celebrate for a moment, because today it's back to work.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): My friends, in one week, in one week we will have as close to a national primary as we've ever had in this country. I intend to win it and be the nominee of our party.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HORSLEY: All of the Republicans campaigned hard in Florida, seeing the state as a giant stepping stone to the nomination. McCain faced particularly tough competition from Mitt Romney. But exit polls show the 71-year-old senator winning handily among Florida seniors, who represented the biggest voting block. He also got some last-minute support from Florida's popular governor, Charlie Crist. Exit polls suggest McCain scored best with Republicans who consider themselves moderate, while Romney did better with self-described conservatives.

Last night, McCain vowed to become the standard bearer for all Republicans by chanting limited government, low taxes and careful spending.

Sen. McCAIN: I am confident we will succeed in this contest and in the bigger one in November against - against anyone the Democratic Party nominates.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HORSLEY: For Romney, Florida represents another disappointing second-place finish, and because of the winner-take-all system, he gets none of the state's 57 delegates. He'd hoped to win in Florida by stressing his business savvy and experience in economic issues. But even though half the voters called the economy the most pressing issue, McCain was seen as just as capable in that area.

Romney shows no signs of ending his campaign. His wife Ann told supporters in St. Petersburg last night they are looking forward to next week's contest.

Ms. ANN ROMNEY: The conservatives are starting to rally around Mitt. This is just a send-off point. This is not an end. It's another beginning. We have 22 more states to go after, and we will be able to do that.

HORSLEY: Mitt Romney pointedly thanked a couple of cousins campaigning for him from California and Colorado, two states with contests next week. And he joked that supporters make his already large family feel like it's getting even bigger.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): All you guys are family. Don't expect to be part of the inheritance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROMNEY: I'm not sure there's going to be much left after this.

HORSLEY: The multimillionaire has already dug deeply into his own pocket for the race, buying almost 10 times as many TV ads in Florida as McCain did.

Rudy Giuliani also campaigned hard in Florida after conceding several of the earlier contests. That strategy seem to backfire on the former New York mayor. And by last night Giuliani was speaking of his campaign in the past tense.

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former Republican Mayor, New York: Presidential Candidate): I'm proud that we chose to stay positive and to run a campaign of ideas. In an era of personal attacks, negative ads and cynical spin, we ran a campaign that was uplifting.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Giuliani travels to California today, where he is expected to throw his support to McCain. For all the focus Republicans put on Florida, Democratic presidential candidates steered clear of the state. They had promised not to campaign here after Florida blocked the party's rules and moved its primary up into January. That didn't stop Hillary Clinton, though, from coming to Davie, Florida last night to celebrate with her supporters, even though her victory carries no delegates with it, at least for now.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): I promise you I will do everything I can to make sure not only are Florida's Democratic delegates seated, but Florida is in the winning column for the Democrats in 2008.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HORSLEY: Clinton got half the Democratic total, more votes than any of the Republicans. But it was on the GOP side that yesterday's primary narrowed the field; next week's contests from coast to coast are expected to continue that process.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, St. Petersburg, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.