Romney and McCain going all out in the Sunshine State

With Huckabee voluntary giving up on the nomination and Giuliani fading into irrelevance, the race is more than ever an all-out showdown between John McCain and Mitt Romney. And while seven polls out this morning showing a Romney-McCain toss-up in the Sunshine State, there were some hints of McCain pulling ahead in the wake of Crist's endorsement.

Well, think again. Two new polls have good news for Romney -- and both were taken exclusively on Sunday, so after what was supposed to be a good news cycle for the Arizona Senator:

  • PPP has Romney pulling ahead 35% to 28% with Huckabee at 13% and Giuliani at 12%. Among those who made up their mind in the past week, Romney leads by an outstanding 47% to 28% and he is also ahead among those who have already voted, 39% to 30%. This could very well be an outlier, but keep in mind that a Datamar poll out yesterday also had Romney up big. Nonetheless, given that nearly all other polls show the two front-runners separated by one or two points don't put too much stock on a clear Romney lead.
  • The second poll is SUSA's survey that has Romney slightly up 32% to 31%, much more in line with other surveys. Giuliani is at 16% and Huckabee at 13%. Three days ago, McCain was up 30% to 28% so Romney has picked up some support. And among those who have already voted, Romney is up 36% to 31% -- which confirms PPP's number and bodes well for Romney.
Considering McCain has long detested Romney and that their New Hampshire race was particularly vicious, it is not surprising that the two candidates are at each other's throats in Florida. McCain's decision to twist Romney's words on a withdrawal timetable upped the rhetoric, and Romney is now striking back.

The former Massachusetts Governor is no Huckabee; he wants to win, and he knows what he needs to do to hurt McCain: Remind conservatives of why they've always distrusted their new front-runner. This might all be too little and weeks too late, but Romney's new strategy is to hammer McCain for everything in his record that has given him a maverick reputation.

Romney's exhibit A is McCain's parading around Florida with Joe Lieberman, who endorsed his Senate colleague despite still being a Democrat and has been stumping for him in the state in the past few days. I am actually at a loss to explain why McCain would think this is a good idea. His big problem has always been the conservative vote and he has the moderate vote pretty much locked up at this point; not only that, but if there is one state in which Lieberman's image is probably more closely associated with that of a partisan Democrat than a centrist almost-Republican, it's probably in Florida where memories of the 2000 recount are still vivid. In any case, Romney used this association on Fox News this morning. Asked about McCain's economic record, Romney answered among other things: "In particular, McCain–Lieberman, this is a bill that would add a $1,000 to people's gasoline bill every year, a gas tax if you will."

And Romney is broadening this attack by reminding voters of McCain's flirtation with all sorts of Democrats, for example the rumors of his becoming John Kerry's running-mate back in 2004. Romney is now blasting away with a robo-call reminding voters of McCain's supposedly Democratic leanings:

You can learn a lot about a candidate by looking at their friends. John McCain and Ted Kennedy wrote an amnesty bill. And McCain teamed with another liberal Democrat to write campaign finance reform. John McCain also joined with Democrats to vote against the Bush tax cuts. And listen to what Bill Clinton said about John McCain just last week. Bill Clinton audio: 'She and John McCain are very close.'

In response, McCain went after Romney's flip-flops ("He has consistently taken both sides of any major issue. He has consistently flip-flopped on every issue") and he brought up Romney's electability (or lack thereof). He also went out with a new radio ad blasting Romney's Massachusetts record.

Remember how this week was meant to be Giuliani's last stand? The media was supposed to spend 7 days covering Giuliani who was not going to suffer at all, claimed the campaign, from his skipping the early-states. As I have been repeating since early September, Giuliani's strategy simply made no sense: Even if there was no clear front-runner by Florida, there were going to be candidates who had won previous candidates who would come in as prior victors. In other words, Giuliani was hoping that the race would remain muddied and that he would benefit, but even in that scenario it was unclear how he could possibly recover -- and that is exactly how it has played out over the past month. The first five contests made the race into a McCain-Romney showdown, and Giuliani has been unable to fit in.

Giuliani surprisingly declared today, "The winner of Florida will win the nomination" (via the LA Times). He might not be entirely right (a Romney win would in no way ensure a Romney nomination) but he has at least finally realized that Florida is indeed his first and last stand. Does this mean he will drop out prior to Super Tuesday if things don't go well tomorrow? That could totally scramble the field in states like New York and New Jersey.



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