Slim lead

Republican presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, accompanied by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, center, greets a supporter during a visit to a polling station in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Charles Dharapak / Associated Press / January 29, 2008)

John McCain won the Florida Republican primary on Tuesday in a contest that crowned him as the front- runner for his party's presidential nomination and quashed the White House bid of Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Mitt Romney finished a disappointing second, but will remain McCain's chief rival as the GOP campaign expands today to battlefields stretching coast to coast. McCain's victory gave him new momentum for contests Tuesday in California, New York, Illinois, Georgia and 17 other states.

Former New York Mayor Giuliani finished a distant third in Florida, just ahead of Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor. Giuliani's failure to win any contests in the first month of Republican balloting crushed his once high-flying candidacy. He hinted Tuesday night that he would drop out of the race, and is expected to endorse McCain as soon as today.

For McCain, Florida's winner-take-all prize of 57 delegates offered a measure of validation from a party that has long cast a wary eye on his tendency to break with Republican orthodoxy.

The win was especially significant for McCain because independents, a crucial force in his victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina, could not vote in Florida.

Speaking to hundreds of cheering supporters in a Miami hotel ballroom, McCain thanked voters for bringing him "across the finish line first in, as I have been repeatedly reminded lately, an all-Republican primary."

"Our victory may not have reached landslide proportions, but it is sweet nonetheless," said McCain, flanked by his wife, Cindy, and Florida GOP Gov. Charlie Crist, who endorsed the candidate Saturday.

With 99% of precincts reporting, McCain led with 36%, followed by Romney with 31%, Giuliani with 15%, Huckabee with 13%, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas with 3%.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York defeated Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in a contest that had no bearing on the race, beyond the symbolic value she touted in a victory appearance Tuesday night in South Florida. Late results showed Clinton with 50%, compared with 33% for Obama and 14% for former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

In St. Petersburg, Romney told a disheartened crowd of hundreds that he shared their disappointment, but the former governor of Massachusetts vowed to keep fighting for delegates to the Republican National Convention.

Minutes after congratulating McCain, Romney pressed ahead with his case against the longtime Arizona senator, saying it was "time for the politicians to leave Washington and for the citizens to take over."

"Washington is fundamentally broken," he said. "We're not going to change Washington by sending the same people back just to sit in different chairs."

Romney's wife, Ann, looking somber in a black suit, called the Florida defeat "a send-off point, not an end."

Yet after a month of inconclusive state-by-state victories by Huckabee, Romney and McCain, the Florida primary is the first to give one candidate a clear course toward the nomination. Don Sipple, a Republican strategist watching from the sidelines, called the victory "huge" for McCain.

"He's got the mo' when momentum counts the most," Sipple said. "The dominoes are all going to fall his way. I think this sets the table for him to claim the nomination Feb. 5," when 21 GOP contests will be held, or shortly after.

Giuliani, once considered the GOP front-runner, spoke Tuesday night of his campaign in the past tense in remarks to a subdued crowd at Orlando's Portofino Bay Hotel, but he did not explicitly abandon the race.

"In an era of personal attacks, negative ads and political spin, we ran a campaign that was uplifting," he said.

Giuliani had been reduced to a marginal role in the Republican race for weeks. He abandoned his faltering efforts in Iowa and New Hampshire and shifted focus entirely to Florida this month.

Even so, the Florida primary turned into a two-man brawl between Romney and McCain.