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Don Emmert, Getty Images
Arizona Sen. John McCain celebrates with his wife, Cindy, after his triumph in Florida puts him in first place over rival Mitt Romney.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — After a grueling month of campaigning that began in Iowa, Florida voters have finally anointed a Republican front-runner in the race for the White House.

Arizona Sen. John McCain now stands with an open road ahead moving into next week's Super Tuesday delegate-palooza after defeating Mitt Romney in the Sunshine State's hard-fought winner-take-all Republican primary, 36 percent to 31 percent.

Tuesday night's win not only gives McCain's candidacy momentum going forward but adds 57 delegates to his total — thrusting him into the lead in that category as well. McCain now leads Romney 97 delegates to 74. A total of 1,191 delegates are needed to win the GOP presidential nomination.

Things could have actually turned out worse for Romney in Florida had the Republican National Committee earlier not halved the state's winner-take-all delegate count as punishment for scheduling its primary prior to Feb. 5.

On Tuesday's Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., trounced Sen. Barak Obama, D-Ill., in essentially a popularity contest with no delegates at stake after the Democratic National Committee, similar to the GOP, punitively stripped Florida of all of its 210 delegates to its national convention for also scheduling its primary before Feb. 5.

Election night ended more than a week of campaigning in Florida, which grew increasingly bitter between Romney and McCain, a Vietnam War veteran and former prisoner of war. Polls had showed the candidates just a few percentage points apart, and Romney continued to focus on the economy, a strategy that helped him win Michigan's primary earlier this month.

But the message ultimately fell short.

"Almost but not quite," Romney told disappointed supporters in St. Petersburg after the race was called in McCain's favor by several national news organizations.

"All of you guys are family. (But) don't expect to be part of the inheritance. I'm not sure there's going to be much left after this," Romney joked.

"Knowing how America works is more important than knowing how Washington works. The economy is in my DNA," Romney said, borrowing many lines from his stump speech. "I think it's time for the politicians to leave Washington and for the citizens to take over."

If Romney settled for yet another silver finish in Florida, it was Rudy Giuliani who took home bronze.

After spending months and millions campaigning in Florida, he went from the candidate to beat to simply a beaten candidate. Giuliani barely avoided total implosion by hanging on to finish third with 15 percent of the vote. News outlets reported late Tuesday that Giuliani will withdraw from the race today and toss his support behind McCain, who's a close personal friend.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who's found it difficult building on his surprising Jan. 3 win in Iowa to open the presidential campaign season, finished fourth with 13 percent, and there are continued rumblings about how long his cash-strapped campaign can continue.

Romney's campaign heads to California today, where the candidate will join McCain for the final Republican candidate debate before Super Tuesday. California and Utah are two of the more than 20 states holding primary elections or caucuses for one or both major political parties on Feb. 5, or so-called Super Tuesday. In all, more than 1,000 delegates will be up for grabs.

Tonight's debate will be hosted at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley and will be nationally televised. Romney will then continue stumping in the Golden State on Thursday before attending LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley's funeral on Saturday in Salt Lake City.

Maine Republicans will also be holding statewide caucuses to award 21 delegates throughout the weekend, but it's unknown if Romney or other candidates will campaign there in person.

Recognizing the importance of his win, McCain was all smiles. "Florida has always been a special place to me, and it is all the more so tonight. Our victory might not have reached landslide proportions, but it is sweet nonetheless," McCain said. "I offer my best wishes to Governor Romney and his supporters. You fought hard for your candidate, and the margin that separated us tonight surely isn't big enough for me to brag about or for you to despair," he said.

"In one week we will have as close to a national primary as we have ever had in this country. I intend to win it and be the nominee of our party," McCain said. "And I intend to do that by making it clear what I stand for."

While McCain now has momentum — building on earlier wins in South Carolina and New Hampshire — Romney can take solace knowing he has deeper pockets, which could help him reach more voters in more states on Super Tuesday as the race shifts from a contest of single-state stumps to one stressing mass media advertising. It's expected he'll liberally use those airwaves to continue painting McCain as a liberal while stressing his own executive experience and Reagan-style conservative values.

Throughout the week campaigning in Florida, Romney pounded a theme that the three major bills McCain is best know for, including the McCain-Feingold bill that reformed campaign financing, are flawed and clear reasons why McCain should not be elected.

Attendees at Romney's rallies across the state, like Keith Eshelman of Lutz,. Fla., who called Romney "a complete conservative," seemed to genuinely embrace Romney's "Washington is broken" message.

"I think Romney with his business background can do the right things for the American economy," said Eshelman, who wore an Uncle Sam Halloween costume to events.

Fort Myers real estate agent Charlie Pigeon, 64, said he is tired of having President Bush in the White House and Romney would be a great step up.

"We need to do better than a D-minus president, and I think Romney has an A-plus brain," Pigeon said at a Romney rally at the Fort Myers airport on Monday. "You have to understand where revenue comes from. He knows what it takes."

Pigeon also had problems with McCain's age and political record.

"The guy's not old, he's ancient," Pigeon said of McCain. "He's a one-time hero but a current traitor to the Republican Party."

Pigeon said the McCain-Feingold law, which changed rules on campaign financing, and other McCain bills make him "seem more like a Clinton every day."

Romney supporter Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., offered that Tuesday's results have given Republican voters the choice between one conservative and one moderate. "Florida has narrowed down this race to a two-person battle," Feeney said. "We wanted to win tonight, but second place is more than enough to create the contest we need on Feb. 5 between traditional Reagan conservatives and Rockefeller Republicans."

"We're going on," Romney's wife, Ann, said. "We feel as though the conservatives are starting to rally around Mitt. This is just a send-off point. This is not an end, it's another beginning. We have 22 more states to go after, and we will be able to do that."

Romney campaign spokesman Kevin Madden said Romney's message on the economy did work. He said this was a close finish and it is important to remember that McCain had 100 percent name identification and spent a lot of money in the state in the last few weeks. Key endorsements for McCain by popular Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Florida Sen. Mel Martinez didn't help either.

"It was not by any means a blow-out," Madden said. "We find it encouraging that we did very well with conservative voters."

Madden said many decisions on ads, candidate travel and other strategies will be made in the next 24 hours, and a lot depends on resources. "I probably couldn't give you anymore information without showing our hand so to speak," Madden said.

Thursday will mark the latest Federal Election Commission deadline for the candidates to report their spending through the end of 2007, so there will be a clearer picture of how much personal money Romney has put into the campaign.

E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com