By Tim Gaynor
MIAMI (Reuters) – John McCain, savoring his status as Republican presidential front-runner, moved into national campaign mode on Wednesday expecting to win the backing of defeated rival Rudy Giuliani ahead of next weekâ€™s â€œSuper Tuesdayâ€ showdown, but Mitt Romney vowed to fight on.
McCain, an Arizona senator, beat Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, in a hard-fought Florida primary that gave him clear front-runner status heading into the critical February 5 Republican voting in 21 states.
Romney, who has poured millions of dollars from his personal fortune into the race and vastly outspent McCain in Florida, said it was now a two-man race.
â€œThe options are me or John McCain,â€ he told Fox News on Wednesday. â€œItâ€™s becoming a real race between two people who have two different views about the future of this country.â€
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who led the Republican field in national polls for much of last year, came in a distant third in Florida. He was expected to end his campaign and endorse McCain.
The Arizona senator beat Romney by around five percentage points after a fierce and increasingly negative campaign.
â€œOur victory might not have reached landslide proportions, but it is sweet nonetheless,â€ McCain told supporters chanting â€œMac is backâ€ in Miami.
â€œWe have a ways to go, but weâ€™re getting close,â€ he said of the nomination to represent Republicans in Novemberâ€™s presidential election. McCainâ€™s win gives him all of Floridaâ€™s 57 delegates to the partyâ€™s national nominating convention.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee placed fourth. Short of money and unable to broaden his appeal beyond Christian conservatives, the former preacher is no longer seen as a serious threat to McCain.
Romneyâ€™s strategy appeared to be to cast himself as the last true conservative in the race, while he portrayed McCain as a maverick.
â€œConservatives will give a good thought to whether or not they want to hand the partyâ€™s nomination over to Sen. McCain. He has not been their champion over the last several years,â€ he said on ABCâ€™s Good Morning America.
Giuliani talked about his campaign in the past tense during a concession speech in Orlando, Florida.
â€œWe ran a campaign that was uplifting,â€ Giuliani said. â€œYou donâ€™t always win, but you can always try to do it right.â€
U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York easily won a Florida Democratic race that featured no active campaigning because of a dispute between the national and state parties.
The national party stripped the state of its delegates to the national convention and Democratic candidates pledged to stay away.
Clinton, who lost to rival Barack Obama in a landslide in South Carolina on Saturday, visited Florida after polls closed in a bid to claim at least a symbolic victory.
â€œThank you, Florida. I could not come here to ask in person for your votes but I am here to thank you for your votes,â€ she said in Davie, outside Fort Lauderdale.
Exit polls showed the economy was the top issue among Republican voters in Florida, with about half listing it as their most important concern. About six in 10 voters described themselves as conservatives.
McCain and Romney had split the last four of the state-by-state nominating contests. McCain won in South Carolina and New Hampshire, and Romney carried Michigan and Nevada, the latter a state scarcely contested by other Republicans. Huckabee won the kickoff contest in Iowa.
Romney aides said the result created a two-man Republican race with McCain, and Romney would press ahead to February 5.
â€œI think itâ€™s time for the politicians to leave Washington and for the citizens to take over,â€ Romney, a wealthy venture capitalist who has touted his real-world business experience, said in St. Petersburg, Florida.
â€œAt a time like this, America needs a president in the White House who has actually had a job in the real economy,â€ he said.
Huckabee also said he planned to go on to compete in the Super Tuesday contests, which include several Southern states like his home state of Arkansas, and Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Georgia.
â€œWeâ€™re a long way from quittinâ€™,â€ he said on Fox News. (Additional reporting by Jim Loney and Jason Szep in Florida, Jeff Mason in Kansas, writing by Alan Elsner; Editing by Patricia Zengerle)
(For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters â€œTales from the Trail: 2008â€ online at http:/blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)