McCain claims the 'conservative' mantle after victory in Florida

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An energised John McCain flew directly from his pivotal win in the Florida primary on Tuesday to last night's Republican television debate in Los Angeles claiming that he has now become the "conservative" candidate to beat in his party's rapidly accelerating nomination race.

The confusion in the Republican field is now essentially resolved, with Mr McCain, the Vietnam War hero and senator from Arizona, now looking forward to a head-to-head contest with Mitt Romney, the former finance executive and governor of Massachusetts.

With contests coast-to-coast in more than 20 states next Tuesday, it is clearly Mr McCain who now has the greatest momentum. Further boosting him last night was an endorsement from Rudy Giuliani, who bows out after posting a disappointing third in Florida.

"Team Super Tuesday" was the message embroidered on hundreds of bright orange baseball caps worn by supporters of the senator gathered in a Miami airport hotel late on Tuesday. "We have a way to go, but we're getting close," Mr McCain told them after taking the stage with his wife Cindy.

All 57 Florida delegates went to Mr McCain, representing a deep disappointment for Mr Romney, whose only really substantial win to date has been in his native Michigan. The former governor still remains competitive, however, not least because of his personal fortune.

As at almost every McCain event nowadays the room offered the chant of "Mac is Back", a reminder that only last summer his campaign seemed to be on the brink of extinction.

Florida was vital for Mr McCain because it was the first so-called closed primary in which only registered Republicans could vote. Hitherto, he had been painted – even by his mother – as an almost errant candidate not quite at one with the party base and ahead mostly by virtue of support from independents.

"It shows one thing," he said after the celebrations were over. "I'm the conservative leader who can unite the party". This is the theme – and his claim to have been a "footsoldier of the Reagan Revolution" – that he was to underscore in the debate last night and across the nation in coming days.

In truth, it was Mr Romney who won a majority of self-described conservatives in the Florida vote, and Mr McCain still has some way to go to make his case. Many die-hards in the party still view him with suspicion and especially his record of proposing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, for supporting energy taxes to fight global warming and curb campaign funding.

Hispanics overwhelmingly side with Mr McCain, and although the immigration debate faded somewhat in Florida it could come roaring back in many of the states voting next Tuesday. Those voters who put it high on the list of their concerns in Florida broke heavily for Mr Romney.

The Arizona senator benefited particularly here also because of the large numbers of retired people and ex-military personnel. Both are natural constituencies for him. His claim to be the candidate best qualified on national security and anti-terror issues is almost unimpeachable.

In Florida, Mr Romney attempted to paint his opponent as weak on economic issues. Yet a majority of voters citing the economy as their main concern supported Mr McCain. There seems little third-placed Mike Huckabee can do to stop this becoming a two-man race.

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