Feature

McCain assumes the mantle of front-runner

Arizona Sen. John McCain this week became the undisputed front-runner in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, with a string of resounding victories in the Super Tuesday primaries. McCain won nine contests. . .

What happenedArizona Sen. John McCain this week became the undisputed front-runner in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, with a string of resounding victories in the Super Tuesday primaries. McCain won nine contests, including those in the delegate-rich states of New York, New Jersey, and California. His closest rival going in to Super Tuesday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, took home victories in Massachusetts, Utah, Colorado,Minnesota, Montana, and Alaska. McCain has now amassed 613 delegates, past the halfway mark of the 1,191 needed for the nomination. “I’ve neverminded the role of the underdog,” said McCain, whose campaign was considered all but dead last summer. “We must get used to the idea that we are the Republican Party front-runner for the nomination of president of the United States.”

Romney’s chances were badly damaged by the surprise performance of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is siphoning off social conservatives. Having largely been written off, Huckabee ended up winning in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, West Virginia, and Arkansas. He has 122 delegates, not far behind Romney’s 177. “I’ve got to say that Mitt Romney was right about one thing,” Huckabee told cheering supporters. “This is a two-man race. He was just wrong about who the other man in the race was.”

What the editorials saidHuckabee is “the Achilles’ heel of the Romney campaign,” saidThe Salt Lake Tribune. Coming into Super Tuesday, Romney’s onlyhope was to establish himself as the candidate of the GOP’s conservativebase, which still has deep misgivings about the maverick McCain. The fact that so many evangelicals and “values voters” went for Huckabee shows that for one reason or another—perhaps including his Mormon faith—Romney’s candidacy simply is not taking hold.

Huckabee’s strength is also ominous for McCain, said The Wall Street Journal. Historically, this is the stage of the race when Republicans rally behind their presumptive nominee. But that’s not happening with McCain. Exits polls showed him being as popular as ever among “moderate Republicans and voters who care most about national security.” But Huckabee’s domination in the Bible Belt shows that McCain has gained little traction among hard-core conservatives. And it’s difficult for any candidate to win in November with a dispirited base.

What the columnists saidClearly, McCain’s problems with conservatives “run deep,” said John Dickerson in Slate.com. His moderate record on everything from immigration to campaign finance is not easily forgiven. But he can take some comfort in the fact that Rush Limbaugh and other talk-show conservatives have less power than it once appeared. Remember, they urged the faithful to flock to Romney, which didn’t happen. The right wing fantasy of finding a candidate who can both “stop McCain” and get elected in November is just that—a fantasy.

Now McCain’s biggest challenge is to make nice with the base, said Byron York in National Review Online. Indeed, McCain’s victory speech this week was less of a thank-you to the Republicans who voted for him than a direct appeal to those who didn’t. He even vowed to uphold “the conservative philosophy and principles of our great party”—a pledge your average GOP candidate usually doesn’t have to make. McCain may be able to win the nomination without the blessing of the conservative establishment. “The only question is how much of the party will actually stand behind him.”

In the end, Republicans will rally around McCain, said Harold Meyerson in The Washington Post. His success so far can be read as a repudiation of the divisive “movement conservatism” that reached its zenith in the George Bush/Karl Rove White House. It appears that most Republicans now long for something less extreme and divisive, and McCain’s more inclusive brand of politics and strength of character fit the bill. Both as a prisoner of warin Vietnam and a maverick in the Senate, McCain has proved his mettle. His victories are “a triumph of biography over ideology.”

What next?Despite McCain’s big night, “Mitt Romney limped out of Super Tuesday with enough strength to keep fighting,” said Jonathan Weisman in The Washington Post. The next round of GOP primaries— in Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia—is open to Republican voters only, “depriving McCain of his independent support.” As for Huckabee, he’s widely presumed to be seeking the vice presidential slot on McCain’s ticket.

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