Two Cheers for McCain

The great political comeback of John McCain will have to wait a little longer for its final chapter.

The Arizona senator took another giant step from the political graveyard toward the Republican nomination on Super Tuesday. But on a day he had hoped would mark his anointment as the undisputed GOP standard bearer, Mike Huckabee stepped on his storyline. McCain handily won most of the major states, including California, New York, Illinois, Missouri and New Jersey, dominating the delegate count and trouncing the candidate he considered his chief rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. But Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who had fallen far off the pace since his upset victory in Iowa, turned into a major power in his own right, winning the key Southern states of Tennessee, West Virginia, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas. Huckabee's strong showing in the Bible Belt—a region that has become a must-win for Republican candidates in general elections—demonstrated not only that his candidacy is very much alive but that McCain still has a lot of work to do in winning over both his party's conservative base and the presidency.

Huckabee drove the point home, declaring himself McCain's main primary challenger heading into the later primary contests. "I've got to say that Mitt Romney was right about one thing: this is a two-man race," Huckabee said. "He was just wrong about who the other man in the race was. It's me, not him." Despite the good news coming out of the South, Huckabee still got thumped in the rest of the country, in states like New York and New Jersey and Arizona, demonstrating that his appeal may not extend nationally. But the campaign didn't see that as a problem. Huckabee didn't spend resources and time in winner-take-all states in the Northeast, and aides pointed to Florida as an example of his bang-for-the-buck mentality. "In Florida Romney spent $8 million and we spent zero, and we tied with him with zero delegates," said Huckabee campaign manager Chip Saltsman. Huckabee plans to take Wednesday off before starting a full-on blitz in Kansas, Louisiana and Washington in preparation for Saturday's contests. From there it's on to the Potomac region for primaries in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. By then the Huckabee folks hope it will truly be a two-man race. "It's time for Romney to get out," said Saltsman.

For the moment at least, Romney must be considered the no. 3 candidate in the GOP race. Romney, who sought to refashion himself as a social conservative to take advantage of the right's jitters about the maverick McCain, won only Massachusetts (his home state), Utah (which is dominated by his fellow Mormons), North Dakota, Colorado, Montana and the Minnesota caucuses. Despite that underwhelming performance, bought at a considerable price with his own money, Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said the candidate was already looking hopefully ahead to the March 4 primary in Texas, where Romney's relatively strong anti-immigrant positions could give him a boost. "We feel pretty good about our message and focus in Texas," Madden said. Romney, greeting his supporters midway through the voting, quoted his wife Ann as saying earlier in the evening that the "one thing that's clear tonight is nothing is clear."

Romney, smiling, declared that she was wrong. "One thing that's clear is this campaign's going on. I think there are some people who thought it was all going to be done tonight. But it's not going to be done tonight." The crowd screamed and cheered for a full minute, ending with chants of "Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!" Even so, Romney aides later told NBC News that the campaign planned a "frank" discussion about its prospects on Wednesday.

Above all, the GOP results showed that the once united Republican Party is suffering a severe split personality, with a substantial part of its Christian evangelical base still undecided about who its candidate should be. Heading into Tuesday the McCain campaign was betting that doubts about Huckabee's ultimate electability would help McCain sweep Southern states like Georgia and Alabama. As late as Friday the Arizona senator himself was talking as if the game were over. "I think it will likely be over by Tuesday," McCain told reporters traveling with him. "I assume I will get the nomination of the party." But on Monday he began dialing back, telling reporters that he wasn't "predicting anything" and that he was merely "guardedly optimistic" about his chances on Tuesday.

The real message of Tuesday's GOP vote was that many social conservatives remain deeply mistrustful of McCain and aren't quite ready to hand over their party to him. "We don't have to look back too far to see this pattern," Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank, told NEWSWEEK. "We saw it with Rudy Giuliani. It seemed for a while he was going to be the anointed candidate. But he was too much in opposition to the core issues of social conservatives. That gave the first boost to Mike Huckabee."

Conservatives have long memories. And McCain has sinned mightily against the orthodoxy—sponsoring the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which cut off pro-life lobbies from politics for a time and undermined a bedrock GOP belief that money is a form of free speech; joining the Senate's "Gang of 14" in forging a middle ground over the nominations of conservative judges; supporting a compromise on illegal immigration. Those journeys off the reservation have left him permanently damaged with his base. Still, compared to Giuliani, relatively few social conservatives were ready to follow the lead of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and declare themselves opposed to McCain at any cost. Many of them, like Perkins, said "the window is still open for John McCain. He's shown he can get a third of the vote [of social conservatives]. I think he's right there on the line. He's made some improvements, talked about his own faith. He's got a pretty consistent pro-life record. But the big test is when it comes to [other] policies … He's aligned himself with Ted Kennedy on some things."

McCain himself showed he was acutely aware of his problem. In a somewhat subdued "victory" address, he told supporters in Arizona that "I think we must get used to the idea that we are the Republican Party front runner." But in a clear appeal to the conservatives who haven't flocked to his side yet, he added, "I am mindful that I'm not only running for the highest office in the greatest country on earth, but that I'm also running for the great privilege of leading the party that has been my political home for a quarter century … and I promise you, if I am so fortunate to win your nomination, I will work hard to ensure that the conservative philosophy and principles of our great party, principles that have done so well by the country we love, we'll again win the votes of a majority of the American people and defeat any candidate our friends on the other side nominate." McCain was expected to repeat that theme in a speech he is set to give Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual meeting of social conservatives that he has avoided for years. And while his aides admitted McCain underperformed in the South, they spun his loss there two ways: one, he didn't lose to Huckabee by much. Number two, and perhaps most important, Romney didn't win any of the big states.

Despite Huckabee's sweep of the South, the McCain forces still don't see him as a major threat in the long run. They believe he takes more votes away from Romney than he does from them. And they still voice doubts that the former Arkansas governor can go the distance, whatever momentum his Southern triumphs might bring. McCain's aides believe the upcoming primaries—especially in Virginia, Maryland and Ohio—favor their man; he does well with the moderate Republicans and GOP voters with military backgrounds who are prominent there. Huckabee, aides believe, would have to win a state like Texas to seriously compete for the nomination, and for now they don't believe that will happen.

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