‘Maverick’ McCain is Republican frontrunner

PROPELLED into next week’s Super Tuesday from the final Florida stretch, Senator John McCain’s surprising and much-needed victory over Governor Mitt Romney has not only made him a bona fide frontrunner, it has stumped the punters who were left asking: “How did he do it?”

A surprise of another sort came after “America’s Mayor” went into a Florida freefall and was last night expected to withdraw from the race after what some called the worst campaign of the millennium.

“We ran a campaign that was uplifting,” said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. “You don’t always win, but you can always try to do it right.”

Mr Giuliani has previously backed Mr McCain, and an endorsement from the former New York mayor leaves him almost unchallenged in the field of moderate voters.

There was a lot at stake for the Republican candidates in Florida. It was the largest and most diverse state to host a primary so far and the most accurate harbinger of things to come. No candidate since 1972 has been the party nominee without first winning in Florida, and no Republican has won the White House without Florida since 1924.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who endorsed Mr McCain, called him a “true American hero, a great United States senator”. But the veteran’s national security credentials paled in a state that’s been hard hit by the slowing economy and the housing slump.

“Millionaire Mitt” looked to capitalise on his economic prowess, hoping to appeal to Floridians — and the nation at large.

However, polls showed that Mr McCain not only did marginally better among voters whose main concern was the economy, his unpopular immigration reform bill made him a champion of the issue with Florida’s Latino base. He got 50% of the Cuban vote and that will be influential on Super Tuesday when other large Latino communities come into play.

The “Maverick’s” victory is also significant because in a primary where only registered party members can vote, he seems to be rallying Republican conservatives, which bodes well for his campaign next week. His earlier victories depended on support from independents.

The senator’s campaign may now focus more on the north-west and California and the big victories that will deliver more delegates.

Mr Romney, who has tried to position himself as the last true conservative, is also vying for those moderate to liberal states, hoping they will be more forgiving of his Mormon religion.

Governor Mike Huckabee, who has not won since finishing first in the Iowa caucuses on January 3, will be hoping to keep his candidacy alive in the southern and midwestern states.

The pastor seems unable to broaden his appeal beyond the Christian conservatives. He may siphon some of Mr Romney’s conservative support but will unlikely pose a serious threat to Mr McCain.

Senator Hillary Clinton swept in for a victory speech after a landslide victory over Senator Barack Obama.

The Democratic National Committee stripped the Sunshine State of its delegates when it moved up its primary to January 28 in an effort to have more influence in candidate selection.

Ms Clinton rallied the establishment, women and Latino voters, all of whom become increasingly significant in the nomination endgame next week.

Since the Florida primary only allows registered party members to vote, Mr Obama was deprived of young voters, independents and political neophytes who turned up at the polls in the earlier states.

Victory here comes with bragging rights in a state which could swing either way in the election in November. It provides precious momentum going into Super Tuesday.

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