Wednesday, January 30, 2008

McCain wins Florida, Clinton shamelessly declares victory

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Let's try to get through this quickly. For whatever reason(s), I seem to be rather impatient today.

CNN's recap is here. The results are here.

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Hillary wins! (Who cares?)

Not that it matters.

As in Michigan, state Democrats broke the rules and moved up their primary vote and were punished by the Democratic National Committee. No delegates were allocated, and, prior to the vote, the leading candidates didn't bother to campaign there.

But then... why did she declare victory? "I am thrilled to have had this vote of confidence that you have given me today," Clinton told supporters. "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."

So Hillary played along with the ruling, avoiding Florida, until it was in her self-interest, after her bad loss to Obama in South Carolina, not to. And, in declaring victory in what was a non-competitive race, she now wants the vote to count, for Florida to get its allocation of delegates after all? What do you think she'd be saying -- what do you think her husband would be saying -- if Obama were trying to pull a stunt like this? Or what if Obama had simply won and was respecting the ruling? There wouldn't be a peep out of the Clintons. And so she's declaring victory and her supporters are lapping it up. It's all quite despicable. She wants the delegates, but she also wants the momentum heading into next week's Super Tuesday. And apparently she'll stop at nothing to get it.

And the Obama campaign is right: "When Senator Clinton was campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, she said that states like Michigan and Florida that won’t award delegates, ‘don’t count for anything.’ Now that Senator Clinton has lost badly in South Carolina, she’s trying to assign meaning to a contest that awards zero delegates and where no campaigning has occurred."

I've been trying to remain detached, still talking up Edwards and hesitant to endorse either Clinton or Obama. As I've said many times already, I think either one would make a good (and potentially great) president, but I don't particularly care for either one, at least not in the way I cared for Gore and Kerry. But now? I was sympathetic to Clinton after Iowa, pulling for her to win New Hampshire, if only to keep the race competitive, but the events in South Carolina and now Florida are turning me against her -- perhaps for good.

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McCain triumphs in key all-Republican vote


And I'm beginning to wonder about those "why Romney will win" posts I wrote a while back -- you know, this one and that one. I still think Clinton will win the Democratic nomination, but McCain may now be the genuine frontrunner on the Republican side after beating Romney in Florida, 36 to 31, with Giuliani and Huckabee back in third and fourth with 15 and 14, respectively.

My argument for Romney was essentially this: The Republican race will soon become a two-man contest between Romney and McCain. And Romney will win that contest because social conservatives (the christianist theocrats of the right, the base of the GOP) will pick him over McCain, as will the pro-business, low-tax conservatives (the plutocrats, like the Bushies) who make up the Republican establishment. McCain will still have the neocons on his side, of course, but he is way too much of a maverick and has done way too much to alienate, and arouse the unforgiving wrath of, his party's core elements and constituencies, to win the nomination. To be sure, Romney is hardly an ideal candidate, whatever his appeal to the theocrats and plutocrats, but, in the end, Republicans will turn to him as the preferable option. Yes, McCain will pick up support from Thompson and Giuliani, but Romney will attract most of Huckabee's support.

But maybe not.

McCain's victory in Florida was all the more impressive for being a victory in an all-Republican primary. The question all along was whether he could win his own party without the support of independents (and Democrats). That question may have been answered in Florida. McCain now has significant momentum heading into next week.

It is far too early to call it for McCain, though, and Romney could still do well on Super Tuesday. He has a lot of money and the massive advertising and ground campaigns to rebound from this defeat. As I put it last week: Romney still has a decisive and perhaps insurmountable advantage over McCain in all-Republican primaries where money/advertising and extensive/effective ground campaigns matter. McCain is the likeable, straight-talking guy who does well in states like New Hampshire, where more personal interaction with voters is stressed, that is, where door-to-door and pancake-breakfast campaigning is what matters, but Romney is the image-conscious guy who can get his message out on a mass scale. Florida proved that McCain's appeal is more extensive than I had thought, and that is capable of beating Romney on a larger stage than New Hampshire, but, again, Romney isn't done yet.

The point is, it is still not clear to me -- and here are CNN's exit poll results, by the way -- that McCain can beat Romney in other all-Republican primaries. Indeed, Florida seems to have been a particularly good state for McCain. He benefitted in Florida from large numbers of independent, Hispanic, and elderly voters (he easily won Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties). However, Romney did very well among evangelicals and social conservatives.

But there may be new a dynamic at play. It is possible that a "Stop Romney" coalition is emerging among Republicans, with the ultimate beneficiary, of course, being McCain. (It has frequently been noted that Romney is rather unpopular among his fellow candidates -- they just don't like him (and how he has conducted himself on the campaign trail).) It wouldn't be anything formal, of course, but it does seem that their rivals are turning to McCain, and not Romney, when they drop out of the race. Thompson may not have endorsed anyone yet, but he is known to be close to McCain. Huckabee may be a theocrat, but he seems to like McCain a great deal, or at least to dislike Romney a great deal. And, with the results still fresh, it is being reported that Giuliani will drop out of the race after his lackluster third-place finish in Florida and endorse McCain. In other words, although McCain is deeply disliked among many in the Republican Party and throughout the conservative movement, he seems to have emerged as a sort of unifying figure both because of his personal popularity and because he's the only one left to prevent Romney from winning the nomination.

How will this play out? As long as Huckabee stays in the race, he will drain potential social conservative support from Romney, thereby helping McCain. If Huckabee drops out, much of his support will go to Romney, but perhaps not as much as previously expected. After all, theocrats are generally uncomfortable with Romney -- partly because of his more liberal (or at least vague and inconsistent) past, partly because he's a Mormon -- and a Huckabee endorsement of McCain would immediately boost the latter's credibility with Huckabee's base. (And note that in his victory speech McCain reached out to Giuliani, played up his conservative bona fides, said nice things about those he had just defeated, talked about winning an "election" (which it wasn't), and otherwise looked and sounded like a confident frontrunner.)

Romney, I think, would still have the advantage in a two-man contest with McCain -- again, because he is more solid with both the theocrats and the plutocrats -- but the (formal or otherwise) backing of Thompson, Giuliani, and Huckabee (and the acquisition of much of their former support) would make McCain much more competitive in such a contest than previously expected.

So competitive, in fact, that he could very well win it. And who, prior to New Hampshire, or back when McCain's campaign was in disarray and on the verge of collapse, could have predicted that?

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