By Steve Holland - Analysis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican John McCain emerged on Tuesday as the front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination with a victory in Florida, six months after he was resurrected from the political scrap heap.
McCain, who at 71 would be the oldest person elected to a first presidential term, scored a narrow victory over rival Mitt Romney in Florida despite being outspent on advertising by an estimated three-to-one margin.
“Our victory might not have reached landslide proportions, but it was sweet nonetheless,” McCain told a victory rally in Miami.
With Republicans increasingly rallying around McCain as the most electable candidate in the party’s field, the Arizona senator goes into the campaign for the 21 states holding Republican contests on “Super Tuesday” on February 5 with the wind at his back.
That surge would be boosted even more with an expected endorsement by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who finished a distant third in Florida after staking his candidacy on the state.
McCain already is in a strong position in many of the Super Tuesday states like delegate-rich California, New York and New Jersey.
“McCain now has the momentum to sweep Super Tuesday,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed. “He’s proven to doubters that he can put together a right-of-center winning coalition and he’s now the front-runner for the Republican nomination.”
McCain said of his chances on February 5: “I intend to win it and be the nominee of our party.”
The Florida victory meant McCain has won the three most important contests so far of the race to determine which Republican will face the Democrats’ choice in the November election: New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
He is winning based on solid support from moderate Republicans and conservatives most interested in national security matters. Independents have been lining up behind him as well.
“He’s showing the capacity to appeal beyond the traditional base of the Republican Party,” said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
All this came about despite McCain’s near-death experience last summer when his campaign ran out of money and had to get rid of staff. Back then, he was registering in single digits in national opinion polls.
Now he is the man to beat in the Republican field, after a Florida campaign that turned bitter as he and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney traded insults over who was best suited to lead the country.
The tenor of their campaign — McCain accusing Romney of supporting a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq and Romney declaring McCain is a liberal — could make for an acrimonious debate on Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, California.
Romney, who has put millions of his personal wealth into helping bankroll his campaign, has the ability to keep pumping money into his effort, lengthening the Republican contest.
“He’s got money, but the pressure will really be on Romney now to have some victories,” Black said.
(Reporting by Steve Holland, editing by Patricia Zengerle)
To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/