Florida Republicans voters brought the race for the GOP presidential nomination into sharper focus by delivering a hard-fought victory to John McCain while Sunshine State Democrats boosted Hillary Clinton going into next week's Super Tuesday primaries.
McCain's victory over Mitt Romney marked his third win this primary season, putting him in the strongest position of any remaining Republican heading into next week's Super Tuesday round of voting. Mike Huckabee, who narrowly lost to McCain in South Carolina 10 days ago, finished well behind the front-runners, as did Rudy Giuliani, who dropped out after the Florida outcome became clear Tuesday night.
McCain ran particularly strong among Hispanic voters, beating Romney by better than 3-1 and Giuliani by more than 2-1 among Latinos, who comprised one in eight GOP primary voters. His reputation for "straight talk" also served him well in Florida, winning 45 to 19 percent over Romney among the one-in-five voters who valued a candidate who "says what he believes." He tied Romney among party regulars, while continuing to run strong among independents and moderates. And he narrowly beat Huckabee among Evangelical Christians after losing badly to him among these voters in South Carolina.
Among Democrats, Clinton won decisively in most key voting groups. No delegates were at stake in the contest -- the result of a dispute between the state and national Democratic parties -- and the candidates had refrained from campaigning in the state. But the breadth and margin of her victory over Barack Obama likely will be used by her campaign to counter her lop-sided loss to the Illinois senator in South Carolina on Saturday and recent endorsements of Obama by prominent Democrats, including Ted Kennedy.
On many core issues and concerns, McCain and Romney matched each other strength for strength in Tuesday's primary. Romney held an advantage over the half of voters who made their decision on the issues, but McCain countered with a strong showing among the remaining half who preferred leadership and personal qualities. Romney did particularly well among voters who wanted a tough stand against illegal immigrants, while McCain did better than his main rival among economy voters, a group where Romney had hoped to dominate.
McCain was particularly strong among Hispanic voters. He bested Romney by better than 3-1 and beat Giuliani 2-1 among Latinos, who comprised about one in 10 GOP primary voters. His reputation for "straight talk" also served him well in Florida, winning 45 to 19 percent among the one in five voters who valued a candidate who "says what he believes." He also was competitive with Romney among party regulars.
Conservatives comprised 61 percent of the GOP electorate, slightly higher than previous primaries, and they clearly preferred Romney, by 37 to 29 percent. But moderates and liberals supported McCain by a 2-1 over Romney.
Of the 37 percent of voters looking for a candidate who "shares my values," 35 percent voted for Romney – nearly double those for McCain. McCain had a 10-point edge among voters looking for a candidate with the right experience.
Romney had campaigned to make the economy the top issue in this race. The economy was the top concern for 45 percent of Florida's Republican primary voters. But McCain edged out Romney among economy voters, 40-32 percent.