Sen. John McCain edged out Mitt Romney to win the delegate-rich Florida primary on Tuesday night, solidifying his transformation from left-for-dead candidate to a front-runner and dealing a devastating blow to the presidential hopes of Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose distant finish here threatened to doom his candidacy.
McCain’s narrow victory showed he could win in a state where only Republicans were allowed to vote — not just in states like New Hampshire and South Carolina, where his earlier victories were fueled in part by independent voters. And in Florida, even a slim victory is sweet: The state awards its 57 delegates, the most of any contest yet, on a winner-take-all basis.
With 73 percent of the precincts reporting, McCain had 36 percent of the vote, Romney 31 percent, Giuliani 15 percent, and Mike Huckabee 14 percent.
In a concession speech, Giuliani sounded very much like a defeated candidate, saying the fight for his ideals would continue despite the election results.
“Elections are about a lot more than candidates,” he said. “Elections are about fighting for a cause larger than ourselves. They are about identifying the great challenges of our times and proposing new solutions.”
McCain now seems headed into a two-person race with Romney. The two have shown little affection for each other, and they signaled a willingness in Florida to attack intensely as they struggled to appeal to the conservative and evangelical voters who form the backbone of the Republican Party.
Romney, in St. Petersburg, sounded like a candidate who intended to battle on. He continued to call for change in Washington, and got in what sounded like another swipe at McCain when he said America needed a president “who has actually had a job in the real economy.”
As he tries to stop McCain, Romney is trying to harness the weakening economy to his advantage by emphasizing his background in business and saying he has the ability to lead the nation back to prosperity. McCain has built his campaign around national security themes, playing off his military background and support for the war in Iraq.
Romney has sought to portray McCain as a Democrat in disguise, pointing to his stances on immigration, climate change and campaign finance regulation, all of which depart from Republican orthodoxy. McCain’s campaign has sought to label Romney as unprincipled and willing to adjust his positions on issues like abortion for political gain.
Both of them now face the challenge of rallying the party establishment and grass-roots conservatives behind them — or at least not around the other.
While most of the attention in Florida was on the Republicans, Democratic voters gave Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton a victory in a virtually uncontested race. The Democratic Party had stripped the state of its delegates as a punishment for moving its primary earlier in the year, and the leading candidates refrained from campaigning there.
McCain, of Arizona, emerges from Florida with an opportunity to get back to where he was at the beginning of this roller coaster of an election season: the anointed front-runner.