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.
Economy Top Issue for State GOP
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.
McCain fought to convince voters national security was the top issue and he won the 14 percent who said the war in Iraq was their top issue by 26 points (45 vs. 19 percent for Romney). But Giuliani, otherwise an afterthought for most voters, lost to both Romney and McCain among "terrorism" voters, the signature issue of his entire campaign.
Helping to balance his shortcomings among other issues, Romney won those 16 percent who put a priority on illegal immigration by a wide margin, 43-25 percent over McCain.
Four in 10 Republican primary voters said most illegal immigrants should be deported to the country they came from, while 58 percent said they should be allowed to stay as temporary workers or offered a chance to apply for citizenship. Romney easily won among those who said illegal immigrants should be deported to their home country (38-26 percent vs. McCain), while McCain won handily among those who favor giving illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship (46 -24 percent vs. Romney).
The Bush Factor
More than two-thirds have a positive evaluation of the Bush administration, and among these voters Romney beat McCain by 4 points, 35-31 percent. Among the third who have negative feelings toward the Bush administration, McCain had a 22-point edge over Romney, 45-23 percent.
More than four-in-ten said the endorsement of the state's popular Gov. Charlie Crist was important in their vote, and McCain took a majority of these voters, 54 percent vs. 21 percent for Romney. Among those saying the endorsement wasn't important, Romney won 40 percent of their votes, beating McCain by 18 points.
Religion has played an important part in Republican primaries and it was evident again in Florida. About four in 10 voters identified themselves as evangelical Christians and they split their vote evenly between McCain at 30 percent and Romney and Huckabee at 29 percent. Romney lost narrowly to McCain among the non-evangelicals by 38 to 34 percent.
The only Catholic candidate in the race, Giuliani, was not able to rely on their vote. McCain and Romney beat Giuliani by double digit margins among Catholics. Giuliani's unorthodox pro-choice position on abortion wasn't able to garner him enough support among the 43 percent of Republican voters who think it should remain legal. McCain, a pro-life politician, beat Giuliani in this group by more than 2-1.
Hillary Clinton swept virtually every significant voting group to easily win the Florida Democratic primary and set up perhaps a decisive showdown with Barack Obama next week on Super Tuesday.
Clinton handily beat Obama by 23 points among women, the bedrock of Clinton's support, and edged him by 4 points among men. Turnout among women increased to 59 percent from 55 percent in 2004. Clinton won big among liberals and moderates, and beat Obama and John Edwards handily among independents, a group that Obama had won in every other Democratic contest in which he competed this year. Obama had capitalized on younger voters in previous events, but he ran more closely with Clinton among younger voters losing 44 to 43 percent to her. Clinton, again, won among seniors, a continually reliable group for her, by a gaping 59 to 24 percent.
Clinton beat Obama among independent voters, winning 40-30 percent. Independents were one of Edwards' best groups where he finished close behind Obama with 25 percent.
Half of Democratic voters are liberals, slightly more than in 2004 (47 percent) and considerably more than in 2000 (43 percent) and 1992 (31 percent). Clinton won broadly among liberals and moderates, but split the conservative vote with Obama and Edwards.
The key to Obama's overwhelming victory in South Carolina was the record turnout among blacks. While Obama claimed 73 percent of the black vote, African-Americans were a smaller share of voters here (19 percent) compared with South Carolina (55 percent). Among Hispanics – 12 percent of voters – Clinton beat Obama by 29 points, and she won among whites by 30 points.
Obama has consistently appealed to high-end voters – those with higher incomes and higher education – but Clinton beat Obama across the board. Among those with income of $100,000 or more, Clinton won by 16 points. Among college graduates she won by a more modest 6 points.
Florida Democrats and the Issues
Among Democratic voters, 55 percent said the economy was the most important issue facing the country, followed by a quarter who cited the war in Iraq and 18 percent who said health care. Clinton won each group, with sizable advantages among "economy" voters (18-point edge over Obama, 50-32 percent) and health care voters (19 points over Obama, 52-33 percent). Her lead was smaller, 8 points, among those who said the war in Iraq was the top issue, 45-37 percent over Obama.
Half of Democratic voters said they were primarily looking for a candidate who could "bring about needed change," and Obama beat Clinton 51-36 percent among these voters. But Clinton had a much larger advantage among voters who most valued experience, beating Obama 83 to 3 percent among this group that made up about two in 10 voters. Clinton also won among voters who sought a candidate who cared about them, as well as Democrats who voted for the candidate they thought had the best chance to win in November.
On Making History
Overwhelming majorities of Democratic primary voters think the country is ready for a woman or a black president. Seven in ten said so about a black president and more, 82 percent, for a woman president. But fewer said the country is "definitely ready" for either – only 29 percent said the country is "definitely ready" to elect a black president and 42 percent said the same about a woman president.
Eight in ten voters said they'd be satisfied if Clinton wins the nomination, but fewer, 70 percent, would be satisfied if Obama wins. Far fewer, 41 percent, would be "very satisfied" with Obama, while a majority, 54 percent, would be "very satisfied" with Clinton.
About half of voters said Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Obama was important in their vote, and Obama won this group, 47-40 percent over Clinton. Among those who said it was "very important," Obama won by 28 points, 59-31 percent. But among those who said the endorsement wasn't important, Clinton won by 35 points, 57-22 percent.
ABC News' Rich Morin, Pat Moynihan, and Scott Clement contributed to this report.