WASHINGTON — John McCain won a huge victory over Mitt Romney in Florida's hotly contested primary on Tuesday, making him the undisputed front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
McCain won 36 percent of the vote, Romney 31 percent, Rudy Giuliani 14.7 percent and Mike Huckabee 13.5 percent. Combined with McCain's earlier victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the Florida win put the veteran Arizona senator in excellent position to dominate 21 Republican state contests Tuesday and possibly clinch the nomination.
McCain and Romney fought each other hard, and their sharp comments made clear how much mutual disdain they shared. But each was gracious once the votes were counted.
Democrats voted, too, though their candidates didn't campaign in Florida after the national party ruled that the state's delegates wouldn't be seated at the nominating convention because the state had moved its primary date to January in violation of party rules. Still, Hillary Clinton celebrated her win as quite meaningful — she got 50 percent of the vote to 33 percent for Barack Obama and 14 percent for John Edwards.
And meaningful it might have been, for Florida is the first large, complex state to vote. Clinton won decisively in most voting groups, including older voters, Hispanics, whites and women. Obama won seven in 10 black voters and did well with young voters, but neither was numerous enough to put him near Clinton.
Democrats who made up their minds late split evenly between the two top candidates. That may reflect the momentum Obama gained from his sweeping victory last Saturday in South Carolina, where he trounced Clinton 55-27 percent.
KENNEDYS ENDORSE OBAMA
President Kennedy's daughter, Caroline, did what she'd never done before: She endorsed a Democratic presidential candidate publicly and said he reminded her of her father. Bequeathing the Camelot legacy, which only she can do, was some gift to Barack Obama, and he wasted no time in putting up a TV ad featuring her. The ad mingles photo images of JFK and Obama as Kennedy says: "People always tell me how my father inspired them. I feel that same excitement now. Barack Obama can lift America and make us one nation again."
President Kennedy's sole surviving brother, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, also gave Obama a high-profile endorsement on Monday, and 7,000 people turned out for the event in Washington, D.C., which holds a primary on Feb. 12. "I know he's ready to be president on day one," Edward Kennedy said of Obama, stealing one of Hillary Clinton's signature lines about herself.
JOHN EDWARDS DROPS OUT
After stoutly maintaining for weeks that he would fight on to the Democratic National Convention in August, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards abruptly quit the race on Wednesday. He'd won no primaries and managed only 18 percent of the vote last Saturday in South Carolina, his birth state.
He said it was time to step aside "so that history can blaze its path" in nominating either the first woman or the first African-American Democratic presidential nominee.
He didn't endorse either one.
RUDY GIULIANI DROPS OUT
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani also dropped out on Wednesday after finishing a disappointing third, with 14.7 percent, in Florida, where he'd staked himself to an all-or-nothing campaign after not contesting earlier primaries. Last year, polls showed him as the GOP front-runner, largely on the basis of his 9-11 leadership image. But his moderate stands on social issues such as abortion, gay rights and gun control didn't fit well with conservatives, who dominate the Republican Party. Publicity about his tangled domestic life when he was mayor didn't help, either. Giuliani endorsed John McCain and could prove helpful to him in Tuesday's primaries in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
MCCAIN, ROMNEY GO ON THE ATTACK AT DEBATE
John McCain and Mitt Romney dueled bitterly in a 90-minute debate Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Rep. Ron Paul were there, too, but were completely eclipsed by the two leading GOP candidates going after each other.
McCain insisted that Romney had called for "timetables" to withdraw from Iraq. Romney insisted he hadn't, although he used the word in an ABC interview last April. Romney said he meant setting timetables for "progress," not withdrawal.
But in April he also said that such timetables shouldn't be made public because "you don't want the enemy to understand how long they have to wait in the weeds until you're going to be gone." McCain said that last part clearly showed Romney was talking about withdrawal. Romney denied it. He called McCain's attack "reprehensible" Washington politics.
McCain, voice dripping with contempt, assailed Romney for paying for a flood of negative ads. "A lot of it is your own money. ... You can spend it all," he said. "But the fact is that your negative ads, my friend, have set the tone, unfortunately, for this campaign."
CLINTON, OBAMA MAKE NICE AT DEBATE
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama debated gently and respectfully Thursday night in California. They had honest differences over some policies — such as health care changes, immigration and nuances of foreign policy — but they differed with civility. They even smiled a lot. And they emphasized that whatever their differences, they were minuscule compared with the gulf dividing them from Republicans. Unlike their previous Jan. 21 debate in South Carolina, this time there were no glares, snubs, low verbal blows or kidney punches. Apparently they got the message that the party doesn't want to split into warring camps this year; Democrats want unity for victory.
JUST WHAT WE NEED
The Ralph Nader 2008 Presidential Exploratory Committee launched its Web site on Wednesday at www.naderexplore08.org. Nader, for those who've managed to forget the 2000 presidential election debacle, managed to win 97,488 votes in Florida as a Green Party candidate, enough to throw that state's results into disarray when Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush virtually tied. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a statewide recount of suspect ballots, and Bush won the state with a disputed majority of 543 votes, which gave him the presidency. Many Democrats blamed Nader, a longtime liberal activist, for tipping the election to Bush. Here he comes again.
On Super Tuesday, Republicans vote in 21 state primaries and caucuses and Democrats vote in 22. The results may make clear who'll be each party's nominee for president — or not.