McCain: Frail with the Far Right

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Shaun Best / Reuters

Senator John McCain speaks beside his wife Cindy at his Super Tuesday rally in Phoenix, Arizona.

John McCain emerged from Super Tuesday the undisputed heavyweight in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination. He also flashed signs of a glass jaw.

McCain's apparent victories in eight states — including the delegate treasure troves of California, New York and Missouri — gave the perennial underdog a novel air of inevitability. But the wins don't appear to be enough to knock Mitt Romney nor the surprisingly resurgent Mike Huckabee out of the race quite yet. More worrisome is that McCain's soft vote tallies in southern states and the Bible Belt, as well as in exit poll results of conservatives across the country, exposed a profound weakness with the party's base.

Neither the victories nor their deficiencies took the McCain campaign by surprise Tuesday night. McCain spent the run-up to the nearly-national primary responding to blistering attacks from iconic conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, James Dobson and Sean Hannity. While all three talk for a living — and their antipathy for McCain is an old saw — the impact of their comments was undeniable; even in his home state of Arizona, McCain lost self-described conservatives to Mitt Romney 47%-36%. "Is it a problem when you're getting the crap kicked out of you on talk radio and Fox [News] all day long? You bet it is," confided a McCain adviser Tuesday. "We're dealing with it. And we're winning in spite of it. And it will get better once we've got this [nomination] sewn up."

An outreach program to skeptical Republicans was kick-started before Super Tuesday, as the campaign gathered endorsements from high-profile conservatives like Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma; Ted Olson, the former Solicitor General who argued Bush v. Gore successfully before the Supreme Court; Jack Kemp; and former Texas Senator Phil Gramm.

But the real test of the gulf between McCain and conservatives — and his ability to bridge it — comes Thursday at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference in Washington. CPAC is the Lollapalooza of the Republican right, and its founder, David Keene, has been an outspoken critic of McCain's perceived anti-conservative transgressions on issues ranging from campaign finance reform (McCain's for it) to gun control (for it, in certain instances) to global warming (against it). As a result, McCain has routinely skipped the event; last year, he was booed in absentia. "He won't get a poor reception at CPAC; he'll get a mixed reception," says McCain adviser Charlie Black, who promises that McCain's conservative endorsements will be showcased at the event. "The conservative movement is a very broad group... I've been booed over the years." But, he added, "anybody who speaks [at CPAC], including Senator McCain, will get majority support."

Black suggested that even two of McCain's fiercest critics — and by far the ones with the loudest megaphones — would, if not fall in line, rethink their attacks on McCain if he locks up the G.O.P. nomination. "Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh will not be supporting the Democratic nominee against John McCain," Black said. For any nominee hoping to win in November, the goal for a general election is to receive 90% support from Republicans, a small slice of Democrats and a majority of independents. "Within a few weeks," Black predicted, "McCain will have 90% support."

Regardless of whether overwhelming conservative support comes, McCain can already feel the effects of being a bona fide front-runner. The campaign raised $7 million in January, including $1 million the first day after the Florida win. The campaign itself has also grown exponentially, from the 20-30 people (including press) who were traveling regularly with the Senator early in the month to the approximately 95 who piled onto the chartered Jet Blue Airbus 320 that flew the whole show from Newark to San Diego and finally to Phoenix on Super Tuesday. After a crowded, chaotic press conference featuring Rudy Giuliani and former New York Governor George Pataki in New York's Grand Central Station Monday afternoon — a press conference at which McCain took just three questions — Mark Salter, the candidate's close adviser and speechwriter, shook his head. "We're not used to being this big," he said with a scowl as he looked at his watch. "We've been late all day. We're never late!"

On the stump, McCain delivered a set-piece speech that wove his promise to defeat "the transcendent challenge of our time — radical Islamic extremism," with chestnuts aimed at proving he would be an able and conservative steward of the economy. At one stop he led with a promise to "make President Bush's tax cuts permanent," an odd choice given that McCain famously infuriated conservatives by voting against Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. In his presidential campaign, McCain has said he supports making the cuts permanent because allowing them to sunset would have the effect of raising taxes, which would be both unpopular and potentially damaging to a weak economy.

But McCain's problems with conservatives probably can't be solved with high-profile endorsements or promises to cut taxes. For many, it will be enough if he wins the nomination and promises to do the right thing on the war, judges, taxes and spending. For others, it will take longer. Maybe forever. As Charlie Black said, "You might never get everybody." But to win, you just need 50.1%.