For GOP, Florida Brings Another Dose of Worrisome News

by Stuart Rothenberg February 3, 2008 · 11:05 PM EST

Republicans got more bad news on Tuesday. No, it isn’t that Arizona Sen. John McCain has emerged as the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. That’s actually good news for party officials, since McCain may well be the only Republican who has a chance to hold the White House for another four years for his party.

The bad news is that Tuesday’s balloting once again exposed a deep division with the Republican Party.

McCain proved to be the choice of moderates and liberals, the less religious, pro-abortion-rights Republicans, voters who were critical of the Bush administration and voters who had a pessimistic view of the economy.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, was backed by conservatives, voters who said they favored making abortion illegal, supporters of the Bush administration and voters optimistic about the economy.

Maybe even more interesting, while the Florida primary was a “closed” primary contest in which only registered Republicans could vote, a not unsubstantial 17 percent of GOP primary voters identified themselves as “independents,” and those voters accounted for McCain’s winning margin.

We cannot know whether these “independents” are former Republicans who have not yet changed their party registration, or whether they have been and remain reliably Republican voters who simply prefer the “independent” label. But we do know that for the fifth major GOP contest in a row, McCain failed to win a clear plurality of self-identified Republicans. Romney and McCain split that group, each winning 33 percent.

Conservatives simply have not yet warmed to McCain (Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won a plurality of them in South Carolina, while Romney won a plurality of those voters in New Hampshire, Michigan and now Florida), and it isn’t clear they ever will. They may, of course, eventually vote for him, but actually warming to him is a different issue.

Republicans seem divided between those who strongly want change — and are backing McCain in primary after primary — and those who remain upbeat about their president and the country, who have been more comfortable with Romney.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about McCain’s victory was his win among those voters who cited the economy as the most important issue. It was Romney, of course, who stressed his ability to handle economic issues, while McCain always stressed national security and the war in Iraq and against terrorism.

Even though Florida Republicans said the economy is the most important issue of the day, it appears they did not vote that way. Instead, they backed McCain because of his “personal qualities,” not issues, and because he represents change.

McCain surely now has an advantage in the GOP race, and he should benefit from the exit and endorsement of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. But Romney has the ability to spend heavily for Super Tuesday if he so chooses, giving him one last opportunity to mobilize conservatives and anti-McCain voters, especially in closed primary states. The ball is now in his court.

If the Republican results in Florida reminded us again of divisions within the GOP, the Democratic turnout in the state, in a primary with no delegates at stake, is a reminder of the Democrats’ enthusiasm.

But that doesn’t mean Tuesday night was not without its problems for the Democrats.

With the state stripped by the Democratic National Committee of all of its delegates, and all three of the major candidates still in the race promising not to campaign in the state, the sight of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton cheering on enthusiastic supporters and claiming victory bordered on the bizarre.

True, Clinton received plenty of votes in the primary, and she probably would have carried the state even if she, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) had competed in the state for delegates. But Clinton’s sudden effort to get the state’s delegates seated in Denver smacks of dirty tricks and fundamental unfairness.

Given the hardball that the Clintons have played over the past few weeks, her tactics can only inflame the Obama campaign and the Illinois Democrat’s supporters, as well as reinforce the perception that the Clintons will do anything to win.

It could well be that the Clinton campaign is more than willing to accept that risk for the sake of building momentum going into Feb. 5, especially after Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy endorsed Obama.

But Clinton appears to have a narrow advantage going into Feb. 5 anyway, and her campaign’s heavy-handed attempt to wring a benefit from a Florida beauty contest in which no delegates were at stake, and where neither she nor Obama campaigned heavily, does not put the Senator or her campaign in a favorable light.