The national media have pretty clearly decided that John McCain is now the front runner in the GOP primary. With strong performances in New Hampshire and South Carolina, he has won two of the three traditional, nominee-deciding states. That fits a narrative that is easy for journalists to describe and analyze.
And it’s not just journalists projecting a McCain victory — Sen. John Edwards raised the specter of running against McCain in the last Democratic debate, and the McCain camp is reporting that they raised more than $7 million dollars in the month of January. To me, that looks like lots of Republicans are buying the hype as well.
But if you’re a McCain booster, there are some underlying issues that have to make you worry.
For starters, the nominating process is a race to win delegates, and McCain isn’t actually ahead. In fact, he’s well back in third place — the Arizona senator has 36 delegates, while Mike Huckabee is second with 40 and Mitt Romney leads the pack with 59.
At this point, Huckabee’s appeal is probably limited to his core group of evangelical supporters, and more importantly, he’s out money. He’s probably done. But Romney has been strong everywhere, winning contests in Michigan and Nevada, placing second in Iowa and New Hampshire (both of which added to his delegate totals). Earlier in the month, his campaign reported that they’d managed to raise $5 million, and of course, the multimillionaire can always give his campaign another infusion of cash.
As Ed has said before, there is a history of deep-seated distrust for John McCain among the GOP establishment. McCain has been a champion of campaign finance reform, outspoken critic of torture, and he acknowledged the threat of global warming when many said it was a myth. For whole lot of conservatives, no amount of stumping for Bush or speaking at Liberty University can make up for his earlier sins.
That conservative uncertainty has definitely played itself out so far in the election. After the New Hampshire Primary, former Sen. Rick Santorum was interviewed on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, and two questions in, he launched into criticism of McCain:
[O]n the economic side, he was against the President’s tax cuts, he was bad on immigration. On the environment, he’s absolutely terrible. He buys into the complete left wing environmentalist movement in this country. He is for bigger government on a whole laundry list of issues. He was…I mean, on medical care, I mean, he was for re-importation of drugs. I mean, you can go on down the list. I mean, this is a guy who on a lot of the core economic issues, is not even close to being a moderate, in my opinion. And then on the issue of, on social conservative issues, you point to me one time John McCain every took the floor of the United States Senate to talk about a social conservative issue. It never happened.
After South Carolina, when there was serious discussion about rallying around McCain as the most electable candidate in the GOP field, Rush Limbaugh launched into a diatribe:
We are supposedly damaging the conservative movement. We should just shut up. Just sit by and watch all this stuff and let it happen and just be quiet. What is the point? By the way, it’s aimed at people in talk radio. Why should we in talk radio “just shut up,” and start supporting the front-runner of the moment? Especially when you realize that’s what the Drive-By Media wants! Why should we in talk radio sit here and take our marching orders from the Drive-By Media and others in our movement who write what they write, for liberals in the Drive-By Media. Why should we do that. McCain, frankly, has shown conservatives little but contempt over many years.
At this point in the race, there is still deep opposition to McCain’s presidential campaign in the Republican Party, and it’s not just among opinion leaders, either.
John McCain has yet to win a majority of self-described conservatives. In New Hampshire, he lost them by 7 points to Mitt Romney; in Michigan, he lost 23 to 41, again to Romney; in South Carolina, it was 26 to 35, this time to Huckabee. McCain’s victories, when they’ve come, have been delivered by self-described moderates and Independents, and it’s no coincidence that both his wins have been in states with open primaries. He has also received a huge boost from the fractured state of the GOP field, but his success has served to drive his rivals out of the race.
For Republicans, the last test before Super Tuesday is Florida, and it’s a closed primary — if McCain is going to win, all of his supporters will have to be registered with the GOP. Immediately after South Carolina, polls there showed him ahead. Now, Romney has serious traction, and going into this weekend, it’s anyone’s guess who’s actually in the best position to win.
If McCain loses, his candidacy is in serious trouble. It will be an indication that he can’t compete without additional support from independents. And on Super Tuesday, that could spell disaster in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Montana, New York, Oklahoma, and West Virginia — where the primaries are all closed.
If McCain can’t solve his conservative problem, then the person with the most money and the best organization will become the GOP nominee, which will leave Democrats running against Mitt Romney in the fall. And like many conservatives, most Democrats would be happy with that contest.