1.27.2008

All eyes are now on Florida, where McCain picks up the support of Governor Crist and... Mike Huckabee?!

The Democrats dominated the news over the past few days, but the attention now shifts to the Republican race and their Florida primary. If McCain wins on Tuesday, he will be very close to clinching the nomination. The two new polls released this morning show a very tight race with Romney making up his deficit of the past few days:

  • Zogby's tracking poll has McCain and Romney tied at 30%, an improvement for Mitt who trailed 31-28 yesterday. There is also some movement behind, as Huckabee has surged from 10% to 14% and Giuliani has fallen to fourth place at 13%. Among very conservative voters, Romney leads 40% to McCain's 19%, with Huckabee at 20%. Among moderates, it's 42% for McCain and 17% for Romney.
  • Next, the Rasmussen poll continues to show Romney up, this time 33% to 27% with Giuliani at 18% and Huckabee at 12%. Earlier in the week, Romney was up 4%.
  • Update: A third poll has Romney opening up a small lead, as Insider Advantage shows him ahead 26% to 24%. The previous numbers were tied at 23%. (Second update: In the comments, Steve points out that those were yesterday's number and that today's have Romney and McCain back in a tie, at 25%.)
But new developments since these polls were taken could help McCain (though with about a third of the electorate having already voted absentee or early, last-minute shifts will be harder to discern than usual). In particular, McCain got two significant endorsements over the past few days. First, Senator Mel Martinez announced he would back his colleague which should help McCain in the Cuban community. More importantly, Governor Crist announced yesterday that he was endorsing McCain and would stump with the Senator. Crist, first elected in 2006, is very popular in the state though he is distrusted by some conservative activists (a group that McCain has arguably already lost).

Crist's choice is a blow to Rudy Giuliani who had been courting the Governor. Crist was reportedly on supporting Giuliani in the fall but McCain's camp got him to wait and see if McCain could recover. Indeed, McCain had campaigned for Crist in 2006 and was hoping that the newly-elected governor would return the favor. Now, Crist's endorsement at such a critical time has led to speculation that McCain could tap Crist for VP.

Perhaps worried that his own VP spot is still very fragile, Mike Huckabee has decided to throw off all pretense and openly run to be McCain's running mate. You might remember that Huckabee held back from attacking McCain in South Carolina and that most of his statements about the Arizona Senator were complimentary -- including at last Thursday's debate. And two days from McCain potentially clinching the nomination, Huckabee is now rushing to McCain's defense and attacking Romney.

In an interview this morning, Huckabee backed McCain's claim that Romney had supported a withdrawal timetable: “There are published reports that I’ve seen in which Mitt Romney did in fact talk about support for – not a public timetable – but a secret timetable that would be held by administration officials and members of Congress." That claim is emerging as the dominant issue in the run-up to Florida, with McCain using a Romney interview from April 2007 in which the former Governor talks of a "private timetable." McCain declared, "If we surrender and wave a white flag, like Senator Clinton wants to do, and withdraw, as Governor Romney wanted to do, then there will be chaos, genocide, and the cost of American blood and treasure would be dramatically higher." To which an angry Romney replied that McCain's statement is "simply wrong and it's dishonest, and he should apologize."

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder convincingly explains why McCain (and now Huckabee)'s attack is misleading. And despite all the criticism Romney has received for being too eager to go negative, he has been on the receiving end of far more personal and insulting attacks, whether at the ABC debate or in McCain's New Hampshire ads. Now McCain is stepping up the attacks by making Romney's supposed weakness on national security a central part of his campaign. This is also an attempt to drive the discussion back towards national security and away from the economy, where McCain knows many conservatives distrust him and view him as too far from conservative orthodoxy. McCain is hoping to get conservatives to also distrust Romney to neutralize his advantage among that voting group.

That did not prevent Huckabee from attacking Romney for being overly negative today when asked if McCain's attacks on Romney's Iraq record were dishonest: “Dishonest? I’ve never seen John McCain say something that is just blatantly untrue... We have a civil approach to presidential process. Neither of us has sought the office by cracking the kneecaps of the other.”

With enemies like Huckabee and Giuliani (who is also holding back), McCain really needs no friends.

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