John McCain's hard-fought victory in Florida solidifies his front-runner status in a quick-thinning GOP field. From here on out, it's mano-a-mano between him and Mitt Romney.
But the rancorous affair that spun out of control over the final days leading up to the Florida Primary will take some time to heal. McCain's sucker-punch of a claim on Romney's alleged flip-flop on Iraq was Clintonesque. It worked, too, as the verbal jousting shifted the topic away from the economy -- a real Romney strong suit and a McCain weakness.
As McCain took pains to point out during his victory speech -- he's won a "Republican-only" primary, which in his mind allays doubts about his standings among the true believers. Whereas he received considerable help from independents in victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina, in Florida, only registered Republicans could vote in the Republican Primary.
But just how solid was McCain's victory? It's significant, but not a knockout blow -- not on Romney, anyway. He did eliminate Rudy Guiliani, who in turn endorsed McCain. And Mike Huckabee, limping home with a fourth-place finish, is just about finished.
That leaves McCain and Romney, who has emerged as the GOP establishment candidate and fiercely backed by the conservative talk-show glitterati, first and foremost Rush Limbaugh. In fact Limbaugh, and a few others, have trashed McCain so much it's to a point that if he does win the nomination, there will be much lingering animosity and recrimination.
A disturbing trend that's emerged and under-reported by the media, is that Romney has an electability problem because of his faith. I have spoken to a number of fair-minded individuals who would not vote for Romney -- under any circumstances -- because of his affiliation with the Mormon Church. Forget the whole business with people not willing to vote for a woman or a black, being a member of the LDS Church apparently disqualifies you for the nation's highest office, according to some.
With that in mind, McCain might be the only GOP candidate with a shot at retaining the White House for the party, against either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. The most recent polls showed that he's either ahead or even in a head-to-head contest against the top two Democratic candidates.
That may be the case, but he'll have to do some big-time fence-mending with the party's conservatives first. Otherwise, with a grumpy GOP base sitting out in November, independents are not going to be enough to deliver McCain a victory.