In last ditch to stop the front-runner, GOP candidates bank on a McCain ceiling in Florida

Those of us hoping for long drawn-out nomination fights in both parties that will keep us guessing until the summer could be disappointed as early as Tuesday if McCain wins Florida, as that would automatically make him into a very clear front-runner for the nomination. How can Romney stop McCain in California, not to mention New York and New Jersey, if the AZ Senator gets a boost of momentum in the Sunshine State?

The candidates are debating tonight -- and both Giuliani and Romney know they cannot afford to let McCain go unscathed as usual. The last GOP debates marked a free-for-all against Romney or a civil tone in which candidates inexplicably praised McCain rather than attack him. And considering just how much there is to attack McCain on in a GOP primary -- and how much the Republican activists distrust him -- this is simply stunning.

With that, we got a Mason-Dixon poll today, the survey we were expecting the most other than yesterday's St. Petersburg Times which had McCain up 25% to 23%. Mason Dixon shows:

  • Romney is up with 30% with McCain at 26%, Giuliani at 18% and Huckabee at 13%.
  • Among Democrats, Clinton is losing none of her lead (and, as we discussed, this could help her tremendously if the projection of more than a million voters is confirmed) and is up 47% to 25%.
Looking at the set of GOP polls that have been released, it is hard not to notice that McCain is having trouble moving up from a 24-26% range and that, in polls with less undecided voters (because the pollster has pushed them more), Romney tends to do better. For example, McCain got 25% in the two polls in which he was leading yesterday -- and 25% in the PPP survey (Romney got 28% in that poll). Remember that Florida is a closed-primary where only registered Republicans vote, and that group has not been as kind to McCain as the electorate at large. McCain's hope is to have fractured results in which the smallest plurality possible winning the vote. But with Thompson's withdrawal and Huckabee's decline, this has become a two man and two halves contest in which 25% of the vote will not win the election.

If McCain does not break out of this ceiling and manage to appeal to more conservative voters, he will have trouble pulling out Florida. And the high number of undecideds in some of these polls suggest that there is a lot of voters that are still uncomfortable choosing between these candidates. In the next 5 days, Mitt Romney will do everything he can -- and he has plenty of resources to make extended appeals to voters -- to convince voters that McCain is not a true conservative and that he, Romney, is the conservative voters can trust. Given that Romney is reaching a range of 28-30% in some of these polls, it appears that many uncommitted voters are ready to embrace his argument and that Romney is benefiting from the decline of the two other darlings of conservatives (Huckabee and Thompson).

McCain is not helped, of course, by the fact that Giuliani is looking like the third man here and is staying in the high teens. Most of Giuliani's votes are from a moderate South Florida electorate that McCain would like to capture -- and don't forget that a lot of these voters have probably already voted for Rudy in early or absentee voting, so it's not like McCain can recapture their votes.

If McCain faces a two-way offensive tonight between Romney and Giuliani who remind conservatives of why they are supposed to distrust McCain, the Arizona Senator could take enough hits to be stuck in that ceiling durably. But if Romney and Giuliani keep the gloves on as they have in the past few weeks, McCain's hopes stay alive.

Update: A second poll from Florida today, from Rasmussen also has McCain stuck in that same range. He trails Romney 27% to 23%. Giuliani is at 20%, Huckabee at 15%.



  • Of course Romney is ahead, he is the only true conservative and the good people of Florida know that!
    McCain is a liberal holding hands with Kennedy and Lieberman.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 24 January, 2008 17:02  

  • As a Canadian I find it funny that Lieberman is described as a liberal. He would be right of centre up here, more to the right on some issues than the Conservative party as a whole.

    By Anonymous C.S.Strowbridge, At 24 January, 2008 20:08  

  • I think Romney is making some progress with his message as a can do moderate on economics in the closed Fla race. Don't forget Rush is still telling his audience that McCain would ruin the repub party. As the war seems to be taking second place to the economy, changes can occur. Romney has the money, also. Would love to see Romney win for obvious reasons.

    By Anonymous stone621, At 24 January, 2008 20:27  

  • I too see Romney wining Florida, but I too want to see Romney win Florida, so I'm concerned this is a bit of confirmation bias.

    Giuliani is spending enough money to keep McCain in check, but Huckabee has all but fled the the state. And Romney has more money than all other Republicans combined. All of this helps Romney.

    I'm predicting Romney wins and McCain comes in close second, Giuliani third and Huckabee fourth.

    If this happens, Giuliani should drop out, but I don't know if he will. He might stick around for Super Duper Mega Awesome Orgasmic Tuesday out of sheer ego, which would hurt McCain in the big states like New York, New Jersey, California. Huckabee should also drop out, but he might stick around in some Southern states hoping to pick up enough delegates to play kingmaker. This would hurt McCain in places like Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas.

    And depending on the margin of victory, it could also cripple McCain's ability to raise money.

    This is the best case scenario for Romney, but I think it could happen.

    By Anonymous C.S.Strowbridge, At 25 January, 2008 12:04  

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