But in a race where party elders seemed to be looking for the next Ronald Reagan, who never materialized, the contest has boiled down to next-best choices. Bit by bit, the GOP establishment – senators, governors, activists, rank-and-file Republican voters – is warming to the possibility of a McCain nomination, as one who has paid his dues and demonstrated an ability to connect with voters. By winning Florida, the first "closed" contest of the 2008 campaign, in which only registered Republicans could vote, McCain demonstrated he could win among the base of the party.
"I don't think it's possible for McCain to be the establishment candidate, but the establishment is backing itself into accepting the maverick," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "The establishment has decided he's the best hope for stopping a President Clinton or a President Obama."
The next outward sign that the "establishment" is now onboard with McCain will be fundraising, Mr. Ayres says. McCain needs to raise money fast to compete effectively against the wealthy Romney heading into Super Tuesday.
A collapse for Giuliani
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was set to drop out of the race Wednesday (after Monitor deadlines) and endorse McCain, using the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California as the backdrop. Mr. Giuliani came in third in Florida, with 15 percent of the vote, behind McCain's 36 percent and Romney's 31.