Moderates Fuel Big McCain Wins

Daily News Article   —   Posted on February 6, 2008

(by Steven Dinan, Feb. 6, 2008, – Sen. John McCain won a series of big-state victories and took a commanding lead in delegates in yesterday’s Super Tuesday contests, but his weakness among conservatives was exposed by a string of wins for Mike Huckabee in the South and Mitt Romney out West.

Mr. Huckabee’s surprising Southern strength and Mr. Romney’s organizational skills in Mountain West caucuses denied Mr. McCain the chance to claim a mandate in the race, leaving him to salvage a message last night.

“We won a number of important victories in the closest thing we’ve ever had to a national primary,” Mr. McCain said at his postelection party in Arizona.

“Tonight, I think we must get used to the idea that we are the Republican Party front-runner,” he said.

Mr. McCain won in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut, Delaware, Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma and California. Mr. Huckabee won contests in Arkansas, Alabama, West Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee. And Mr. Romney won in Massachusetts, Utah, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota and Colorado.

In California, Mr. McCain led in congressional districts across the state – an important showing because the state awards delegates to the national convention based on performance in each district.

Returns for Alaska were still being counted early this morning.

Mr. Huckabee’s strong showing left him to declare that he had topped Mr. Romney as the conservative alternative to Mr. McCain.

“Over the past few days, a lot of people have been trying to say that this is a two-man race. Well, you know what? It is, and we’re in it,” the former Arkansas governor said at his victory party in Little Rock last night.

Mr. Romney vowed to continue running and told his supporters in Boston last night that he still sees a path to the nomination.

“There are some people who thought it was all going to be done tonight, but it’s not all done tonight. We’re going to keep on battling,” he said.

Still, he failed to narrow the race to the man-on-man contest that he had sought with Mr. McCain, which means conservatives will continue to split their votes.

Mr. Huckabee said Mr. Romney’s window is closing even as his own is opening.

“The conservatives do have a choice because the conservatives do have a voice,” he said.

Mathematically, Mr. McCain is in excellent shape, given that many of his victories last night came in winner-take-all states. That gave him a huge lead over the rest of the field in the delegates necessary to win the nomination at September’s Republican nominating convention in Minneapolis.

But the results exposed Mr. McCain’s continuing problems with conservative voters.

Exit polls showed that only in Connecticut did Mr. McCain actually win a plurality of self-identified conservative voters, barely topping Mr. Romney in the Northeastern state. In every other state, he trailed Mr. Huckabee, Mr. Romney or both.

In Utah he was tied for second with Rep. Ron Paul, well behind Mr. Romney, among conservative voters.

Even in his own home state of Arizona, Mr. McCain trailed badly among conservatives, with just 36 percent to Mr. Romney’s 47 percent. And in California, Mr. Romney won nearly half of conservative voters, with 48 percent, according to the MSNBC exit polls.

Recognizing that, Mr. McCain took pains in his speech last night to tell conservatives he is one of them.

“I will work hard to ensure that the conservative philosophy and principles of our great party … will again win the votes of a majority of the American people and defeat any candidate our friends on the other side nominate,” he said.

Mr. McCain saluted Mr. Huckabee graciously, saying, “Not for the first time, he surprised the rest of us.” He was cordial, though less complimentary, of Mr. Romney.

Mr. McCain’s problems with conservatives only deepened when James Dobson, the influential founder of conservative powerhouse Focus on the Family, said yesterday that he would rather stay home in November than vote for Mr. McCain.

“A spoonful of sugar does not make the medicine go down.” he said. “I cannot, and will not, vote for Sen. John McCain, as a matter of conscience.”

Conservative direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie said the discontent goes deep.

“It’s not just famous conservatives who feel this way. … It’s grass-roots conservatives, who remember what the senator did on taxes, immigration, freedom of speech, the ‘gay marriage’ amendment, ‘global warming,’ and a score of other issues,” he said.

Mr. McCain has a chance to make inroads tomorrow when he is scheduled to address the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington – a gathering he snubbed last year.

The Republican race has been a roller coaster so far.

Mr. Huckabee, who served 10 years as governor of Arkansas, kicked off the primary season little more than a month ago with his victory in Iowa’s caucuses.

Mr. McCain took control of the race by winning New Hampshire’s primary Jan. 8 and South Carolina’s primary Jan. 19, then followed that with a victory in Florida’s primary last week.

When former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani dropped out of the race last Wednesday, endorsing Mr. McCain, it left the Arizona senator in prime position to capture liberal-leaning big states.

But his record of fighting with many members of his own party has hurt him. He fought bitterly over immigration, calling for a path to citizenship for illegal aliens that many Republicans labeled “amnesty”; he voted against President Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, though he now says he would make most of those cuts permanent; he led the fight to overhaul campaign-finance laws, angering many conservatives; and he reportedly flirted with becoming a Democrat in 2001 and again in 2004.

Conservatives made up a majority of voters in yesterday’s primaries and make up the troops that Republicans rely on to make phone calls knock on doors for general elections.

Mr. McCain argues that Republicans will unite behind his strong national defense message and says his record shows he can reach across party lines and build a coalition that can help him compete for votes across the country in November.

Mr. Romney, a one-term governor of Massachusetts, has racked up a series of less-contested wins in the Wyoming, Nevada and Maine caucuses, in addition to a win over Mr. McCain in a head-to-head primary matchup in Michigan.

However, his victories came at a heavy price. Mr. Romney pumped more than $35 million of his own money into financing his campaign as of Dec. 31. Mr. Huckabee and Mr. McCain, meanwhile, were spending far less while scoring their victories.

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