If the Florida results remain as close as the exit polls make it appear, nothing is going to be resolved tonight on the Republican side with the frontrunners. If John McCain wins it by a point or two, he gets all the delegates and the headlines that he is the winner of Florida — which helps going into Super Tuesday. But Mitt Romney has no reason to back off, even though he will have lost four of the five real contests so far. He’s worked successfully now to establish himself as the McCain alternative, and there appears to be enough anger and suspicion of McCain among Republicans to make a Romney win plausible if McCain does something to injure himself.
And if Romney wins by a point or two, McCain just keeps going the same way he has. We’re going into a 21-state vote a week from now, and Romney’s money isn’t going to help him much because even he doesn’t have enough to flood the airwaves everywhere on his own behalf.
The question, now, is how long before Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee decide to drop out. Unless something extraordinary happens in the next two hours, Giuliani stands revealed as a strong candidate who made a clever and compelling effort to game the system and failed. And despite the idea that he was the Next Big Populist Thing, Huckabee can’t buy a non-Christian-identity vote.
What may help McCain is the prospect that Giuliani and Huckabee will both endorse him this week before Super Tuesday, which will allow McCain to argue that he is unifying the party by unifying his rivals behind him. If McCain could pull off getting Fred Thompson this week as well, he will have the best answer to the increasingly agitated conservative rage radiating toward him from the radio speakers and a browser near you.