10:07 pm: Thanks, as always, for reading. Check back tomorrow for a full wrap — and a look ahead — in The Note.
9:49 pm: No landslide, but "sweet nonetheless," McCain says of his win. (And no one is more relieved than Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. Mel Martinez, flanking him on stage.)
What a journey for John McCain. He leaves the evening the odds-on favorite for the nomination. An incredible run — and all the pressure is on Mitt Romney now. His money may not even matter Feb. 5 — even he can’t spend enough to be competitive everywhere, and he’s up against a guy that’s about to get all the free media in the world.
McCain is thanking his rivals — and leaves Rudy until last. He calls him an "exceptional American leader" — and he’s thrilled that he’ll be leading in a different way tomorrow.
9:36 pm: Mitt Romney isn’t going away. "I think it’s time for the politicians to leave Washington, and for the citizens to take over," he said — taking it right to McCain all over again. This fight is NOT over.
9:34 pm: ABC’s Jake Tapper is reporting that Giuliani will indeed drop out tomorrow, and endorse McCain. Those discussions we reported earlier have come to something, it would appear.
9:20 pm: "It’s not over until it’s over," Giuliani says — but he was quoting someone in the crowd; not sure that was actually the message he wanted to deliver tonight. Quoting Teddy Roosevelt. "Like most Americans, I love competition," he says. "Elections are about a lot more than just candidates." This sounds like a goodbye — not a let’s fight to the finish type of speech. Kind words for everyone — even Mitt Romney and Ron Paul!
He’s speaking in past tense — at the very least laying the groundwork for an exit, to my ears.
9:17 pm: ABC is calling it for McCain – HUGE night for him. HUGE. He’s on the move now, and if Rudy falls into line next, he’s really well on his way. Not to count out Romney — he’s still got all the money in the world — but this is the biggest race yet, and you’ve got to think the money starts flowing back to McCain.
9 pm: This just in — just off the phone with a Giuliani supporter who says discussions are underway now for Rudy to drop out of the race and endorse John McCain, as early as tomorrow, most likely in California. Still working the story, but my colleague George Stephanopoulos has a source inside the McCain campaign that confirms the discussions, among high-level advisers to both men, about the logistics and timing of an announcement.
8:23 pm: More thoughts on Rudy — my read is if he’s dropping out, it’s less likely to be tonight than tomorrow. And if he’s going to endorse, he’s been fairly clear that he would be with John McCain. If McCain wins tonight and gets Giuliani’s endorsement tomorrow (two big what-ifs, granted), it would go along way toward establishing him as the odds-on favorite.
8:19 pm: ABC’s Karen Travers offers these results, with 85 percent reporting in Pasco County, a bellwether: McCain 36.7, Romney 29.3, Rudy 16.8
8 pm ET: ABC PROJECTIONS AT POLL CLOSING TIME: Clinton will win the Democratic vote, with Obama second and Edwards third. No surprises there. We’ll hear from Clinton around 8:05 pm.
On the Republican side, we’re projecting a two-way fight for first between McCain and Romney (remember what I said earlier about a late night?). For third, it’s a fight between Giuliani and Huckabee.
The headline out of this: Rudy, of course. Third place essentially ends his campaign; he now has to decide whether he realizes it or not, or whether he wants to go through the motions of a debate in California and then a Super Tuesday that could embarrass him. Or does he want to cash in now, and endorse John McCain? He’ll be the most closely watched man tonight.
As for first — McCain has to be pleased with the exit polls that give him a slight edge among voters who put the economy foremost in their minds. That’s a blow to Romney. But the high number of religious voters — more likely to help Romney than McCain.
7:58 pm: Real-time results, as they roll in:
7:08 pm: First off — there are no results to report. And second — to equate the Democratic contest (where no delegates are at stake) with the Republican one (where 57 — the most yet) would not be responsible.
7:02 pm: The exit polls have generally been pretty close — but back in New Hampshire, the early waves suggested a narrow Obama victory, when in fact it was a convincing Clinton win. So sprinkle salt liberally on any numbers — and as a policy, I should note, ABC does not release exit poll information until after all polls close in a state, so as not to influence the vote with polling data that could be unreliable.
6:43 pm: The Obama campaign sends out this teasing e-mail: "Based on exit polling data our campaign is prepared to call the delegate count at 7 pm eastern."
That would be Clinton 0, Obama 0, Edwards 0, Gravel 0, Rick Klein 0. (But don’t try to draft me to run — I’m not old enough to be president.)
5:56 pm: Polls don’t close for another two hours, so no calls or projections until then, but we have a first burst of preliminary exit poll data. This is from ABC’s Peyton Craighill, on a Republican primary where the economy and Iraq have jostled for position, depending on the candidate who’s pushing the issue:
"The economy emerged as top concern for Republican primary voters in Florida, as it has throughout this primary season. Just under half of all Republican voters named the economy as their top voting issue while about two in 10 said terrorism and slightly fewer named illegal immigration. About four in 10 say they were looking chiefly for a candidate who ‘shares my values’ and about a third wanted a candidate who ‘has the right experience.’ "
"Preliminary exit poll results suggest there were fewer seniors turning out compared with 2000, 37 percent now vs. 44 percent in 2000. Conservative turnout is slightly up, with six in 10 voters saying they were conservative and a quarter characterizing their views as ‘very conservative,’ somewhat higher than the past Republican primaries. Party turnout looks like other Florida primary elections, with about eight in 10 primary voters identifying themselves as Republicans and 17 percent as independents."
5:35 pm: Polls close no later than 8 pm statewide. We’re expecting early voting/absentee numbers to be released shortly thereafter; they will be an indication of whether the Giuliani campaign is right that they have built up a big edge among those voters. As for the rest of the results, we’re expecting most to roll in after 9 pm ET — so it could be a long-ish night…
5:23 pm: On Florida for the Democrats — whether Florida and Michigan delegates are seated depends almost entirely on the nominees. Assuming the nomination is wrapped up well advance of the DNC (still my working assumption), I can’t imagine that the presumptive nominee would want a bunch of angry non-delegates making noise outside the convention, so they are likely to be seated eventually.
As for the long-term damage to the party in FL, I think it’s minimal. The state GOP is thrilled that the Democrats have been ignoring the state, but remember that it’s not even February — Democrats have nine months (and a very long general election season) to make up with Florida. Ultimately, the party’s prospects in that most critical of swing states will depend on the nominee far more than pledges and primary campaigning.
5:19 pm: Another note, from my colleague Tahman Bradley: According to CMAG, a company that tracks political advertising, Mitt Romney has again outspent all of his Republican rivals COMBINED in Florida, with $5.3 million spent compared to Rudy Giuliani’s $3 million and John McCain’s $2 million. This is becoming a pattern — he accomplished the same feat in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, and Nevada — and it’s important context to keep in mind while everyone sorts through tonight’s results. If he wins Florida, the McCain camp will say he bought the race. If he doesn’t win, the spin will be that he couldn’t buy it.
Either way, it’s another reason why Florida is slightly more important to him than to John McCain: Recall that McCain is slightly stronger in the Feb. 5 states, so he’d seem better able to withstand a defeat in Florida. However, Romney can keep writing those checks, and McCain needs to keep the fundraising dollars flowing for him to stay in the mix.
4:45 pm ET: I’m not sure of the likelihood of an Obama surge in Florida. The fact that Sen. Clinton is paying even a little attention to the state is getting pretty big coverage in Florida, though the Clinton folks like to point out that Obama has had ads (via a national cable buy) airing on Florida TV stations.
As for a backlash against Clinton to punish her over Florida — I only could have seen that happen in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, or South Carolina — the four states that the "pledge" was designed to protect. They’ve all voted already, so focusing on Florida a little bit toward the end seems like a risk-free proposition — unless you consider that she could be spending tonight in a state that actually awards delegates, on Feb. 5.
3:50 pm ET: Rick Klein from ABC’s The Note here — live-blogging all night as returns coming from Florida, with the latest from the ground. Check back throughout the afternoon and evening for updates.
First off — a few notes and observations.
All eyes will be on Rudy Giuliani tonight. His campaign plane is headed to California tomorrow morning, in advance of the Republican debate on the Left Coast Wednesday night — but the big question is whether Rudy himself will be on it.
He’s had a terrible run coming into the primary, probably made worse by the fact that he’s repeatedly committed a cardinal sin of a lagging candidate: He’s entertained hypotheticals about what happens if he loses, as he did today on "Good Morning America." The fact that he’s quoted as considering reassessing his candidacy if he loses feeds the negative storylines regarding his campaign.
As for what Giuliani has to do tonight, his decision to bet the house on Florida means he needs to win if he’s going to make a coherent argument that he can become the nominee, after the drubbings he’s taken in the five major GOP contests to date.
A Republican source with close ties to Rudyland tells me that Giuliani has a "comeback kid"-style speech written, but that it will only be delivered if he finishes second or first. If he’s third (or worse), the question quickly becomes whether he wants to risk a lopsided loss in his home state of New York on Feb. 5 — and even if he’s up for the flight to Los Angeles on Wednesday.
A quick word or two on the Democrats — the Clinton and Obama campaigns have held dueling conference calls for much of the day, debating the question of whether Florida matters. The 10-second version: The Clinton campaign says yes (in large part because Sen. Clinton is going to win big) and the Obama campaign says no (in large part because Sen. Obama’s folks know she is going to win big).
The Clinton campaign is arguing that the contest matters because the people of Florida are making it matter, with grass-roots campaigning and big Democratic turnout in Florida; they’ll hammer their contention home with an 8 pm rally featuring Sen. Clinton in South Florida. But there’s a major flaw in their argument: Everyone is talking about this campaign turning into a battle for delegates, and there are ZERO delegates at stake in Florida today.
So as much as the Clinton campaign would like a different storyline, after the South Carolina drubbing and the Ted Kennedy endorsement, a big "win" in Florida is unlikely to break through on a night that’s about the McCain-Romney fight and Rudy Giuliani’s political future.