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What Florida Tells Us About The Gop Race

Some thoughts about tonight's Florida GOP primary*:

1.) After Michigan (and even after last Thursday's debate in Boca Raton), we all marveled at Mitt Romney's transformation from implausible conservative to highly-believable businessman-pragmatist. After Florida, it looks like the Romney campaign may have had it right all along: Romney's base came into focus pretty clearly tonight, and it's not middle-class people worried about the economy, but wealthy people and conservatives.

For example, consider the biggest difference between Florida and Michigan, where the top two finishers switched spots. In Michigan, Romney won every income category above $30,000 per year. In Florida, Romney only won upper middle-class voters (between $100,000 and $200,000), while he and McCain tied among middle-class people ($50,000-$100,000) and Romney lost decisively among working-class Republicans. The question you have to ask after Florida is: Was Michigan an aberration--the result of McCain's excessive straight-talk about manufacturing jobs and Romney's auto-industry pandering (not to mention his native-son advantage)? I suspect it was. After tonight, it's not clear Romney has much appeal beyond his country-club demographic. (Keep in mind that, even in Michigan, Romney didn't carry people who thought the economy was "poor;" just people who thought it was "not good" or "good.")

2.) With McCain's existing lead in a lot of the bigger February 5 states (e.g., California and New York), the boost he'll get from Florida, and his imminent Giuliani endorsement (which should be key in a place like New Jersey), it's hard to see how Romney derails the "Straight Talk Express." The only ray of hope I see for him is on the money front. Thanks to continued conservative and establishment skepticism (as in Michigan, Romney won Floridians who describe themselves as "very conservative" and basically tied McCain among the "somewhat conservatives"), even this victory won't necessarily net McCain a lot of cash. Romney, on the other hand, still has his massive checkbook to fall back on. A campaign official told Newsweek's Howard Fineman tonight that Romney would be willing to dump another $20-$30 million into his February 5 effort. That, to put it mildly, is not nothing. 

One thing to watch here is what K Street does over the next week. If all the GOP lobbyists and interest-group types rally behind (read: give money to) McCain, this thing is over. If they reserve judgment till after Super Tuesday, Romney has a sliver of a chance. (Though only a sliver. One big killer for him: Many of the forthcoming GOP contests are winner-take-all, meaning any sort of guerilla delegate-hunting strategy is off the table.) 

3.) Did that vaunted Charlie Crist endorsement pay dividends? Tough to say. According to the exit polls, almost 20 percent of voters said Crist's endorsement was very important, and McCain won more than 60 percent of them. On the other hand, if you look at when people made their decision, it's not so clear it mattered. Crist endorsed McCain Saturday night, and McCain did win people who made their decision over the last three days by two points. But that's the exact same margin by which he won people who made their decision over the last week, implying no endorsement effect.

Having said that, it wouldn't shock me if Crist ended up as McCain's running mate. True, Crist is a moderate, and McCain will need someone who can reassure conservatives. But Crist is also the wildly popular governor of Florida, which the GOP will almost surely need if it wants to win in November.

4.) While we're on the subject of running mates, I heard Tim Russert say Mike Huckabee had a leg up in that department. Hmmm.... True, a Baptist preacher cum Southern governer looks great on paper for someone like McCain, who'd need to shore up his conservative flank. But Huckabee is, if anything, a bigger GOP apostate than McCain is. The guy's spent much of the last six weeks attacking the GOP's "Wall Street-Washington axis"--by which he means the same supply-siders who are already deeply suspicious of the senator from Arizona. I just don't see it.

5.) Was Rudy's strategy flawed, or was it the candidate? I say the latter. Rudy spent a good chunk of time and money in New Hampshire in November and December. The net effect was to move his numbers down. I don't see how he would have helped himself getting slaughtered while trying to win there and in Iowa and South Carolina. The stars aligned for him on the relatively friendly terrain of Florida, giving him a shot he didn't deserve after sitting out all that time. It still wasn't even close. I blame Rudy: Something (possibly many things) about him was just deeply unappealing to Republicans.     

6.) Finally, let's say something about evangelicals. That Romney tied for the lead among white evangelicals tonight is pretty heartening for someone, like me, who'd rather not live in a country where anti-Mormon bigotry is a deal-breaker for the presidency. On the other hand, I wouldn't be too heartened by what happened tonight. Romney and Huckabee both finished with 31 percent of the white-evangelical vote, with McCain a close third at 28. But I'd bet a solid majority of those Huckabee voters would have supported McCain in a two-man race. The Huckabee supporters are probably the most religiously conservative evangelicals out there--and, therefore, the most likely to be suspicious of Mormons. And, in fact, when Huckabee supporters were asked to name their second choice, 26 percent chose McCain versus only 20 for Romney.

File the evangelical stuff away since it could be a factor in those non-Southern states, like Missouri, which both McCain and Romney (but probably not Huckabee) will contest on February 5. (It sounds like Huckabee's going to focus mostly on the South that day.)

Update: A commenter points out that Huckabee could compete in Missouri on February 5. It's possible--the demographics are certainly favorable to him. On the other hand, he's so low on cash I'm not sure he's going to be able to compete anywhere outside the actual South (Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee all vote that day). Still, for the sake of argumnent, replace Missouri with Minnesota or Colorado and the point still stands.

*Please note that exit polls continue to get updated throughout election night. If you notice a mistake, that's the second-most-likely explanation, behind the rank carelessness of your correspondent.

--Noam Scheiber