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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 January 2008, 06:17 GMT
McCain's back at front of the pack
By Katty Kay
BBC News, Miami

You know a cash-strapped presidential campaign is feeling confident when it starts giving free food to journalists.

John McCain greets supporters at his victory rally in Florida, 29 Jan 2008
John McCain's win was down to support from a diverse base

So, when crispy empanadas passed under my nose at the McCain headquarters in the Miami Hilton hours before the results of the Florida primary were actually declared, I got my first hint that things might be going the senator's way.

John McCain's triumph in Florida came down to Hispanics, veterans and seniors and they were all there in the Hilton ballroom to celebrate.

When the victor finally walked on to the stage to claim the biggest, most diverse swing state in the country, cheers of "Mac is back" almost drowned him out.

His supporters are well aware that this win puts their man out in front.

"This bring us two things - conservatives and money," said Bob Heckman, a member of the McCain campaign.

This is a great night for Cuban-Americans
Manny Panir
McCain supporter

Earlier, Bob had confided to me that he felt anxious about this primary. "I'm not nervous any more," he said. "Now we can compete across the country."

Mr McCain paid due tribute to the Hispanics who turned out for him in staggering numbers.

Manny Panir had helped organize the Cuban-American vote for Mr McCain. As the theme tune to Rocky blasted out of the oversized loudspeakers he hopped from foot to foot, beaming an equally outsized smile.

"This is a great night for Cuban-Americans," Mr Panir said. "This candidate really understands their issues."

Huckabee tribute

The candidate's speech was striking for two things - who he thanked, and who he did not.

Mike Huckabee talks to reporters in Tampa, Florida, 29 Jan 2008
Might Mr McCain be considering Mike Huckabee as a running mate?

It was noticeable how uneffusive John McCain was about the man who is now his biggest rival for the nomination: Mitt Romney.

The Arizona senator conceded his own victory was not such a landslide that it had given him cause to brag or Mr Romney cause to despair.

Beyond that, the congratulations to the man who came second were really pretty perfunctory.

There was effusive praise though for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who came in fourth place here.

Mr McCain praised the governor for his humour and grace, two things he said which are too often lacking in this campaign.

Is he looking to Mr Huckabee as a potential running mate? Or does he just want to reach out with kind words to all those Christian conservatives who support the governor so enthusiastically?

No slam dunk

There were thanks too for "my good friend Rudy Giuliani".

John McCain celebrates his win in Florida, 29 Jan 2008
Mr McCain may go into Super Tuesday as the favourite

This was the buzz of the campaign HQ - when exactly will Rudy step out of the race and endorse McCain and how long had the discussions been going on?

One McCain insider told me the two campaigns had been talking for the past couple of days.

The two men certainly like each other and the Giuliani endorsement will mean a big deal to Mr McCain in those north-eastern primary states where the former mayor of New York is still popular.

So Mr Giuliani, the man who was the front-runner for so long, is on his way out and McCain, whose campaign was declared dead last summer, now leads the pack.

And that is what makes this process so fantastically exciting, a fact not lost on all those cheering supporters in the Hilton tonight.

It's not a slam dunk, and, by the way, journalists do still have to pay for the wine, but maverick John McCain is starting to look suspiciously like the establishment favourite.

Katty Kay is the Washington correspondent for BBC World News America, airing at 0000 GMT (1900 ET / 1600 PT) every weekday.

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