The conservative revolt over McCain
In November, many GOP voters may stay home – or even vote Democratic.
John McCain is a tough guy and an American hero. He proved it in Vietnam, where he resisted torture for five years as a prisoner of war. His grit showed up again last year when his campaign for the White House nearly died. He fought back, and now he's on top.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet Senator McCain may finally have met his match.
McCain's problem is conservatives. Not just a few conservatives. Millions of them.
Many conservatives don't like his policies and they are speaking up – and looking elsewhere.
Demanding ideological purity in this way can be dangerous, of course. Today's conservative agony brings back memories of 1964, when Barry Goldwater – the author of "Conscience of a Conservative" – snared the Republican presidential nomination from the liberal wing of the party, only to lose in a historic landslide to Lyndon Johnson.
Yet it could be equally dangerous for McCain to dismiss the current unrest on the right. Most Republicans – some 60 percent of them – describe themselves as conservative or strongly conservative.
In campaigns, these conservatives aren't just voters, they are the foot soldiers. David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, says it is mostly conservative volunteers who "knock on doors, drag their neighbors to the polls, make phone calls, and contribute money. McCain's got to generate that kind of enthusiasm or he's got trouble," says Mr. Keene, who has decades of experience in conservative politics.
So frustrated are many conservatives with McCain that there is even talk – led by well-known conservative columnist Ann Coulter – of playing the role of "suicide voter" and casting ballots for either Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama in November. Ideological purity trumps political victory, the thinking goes.
The depth of McCain's troubles showed up here at the recent 35th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, attended by 6,880 activists, officeholders, and students. A survey of nearly 1,600 attendees found that 70 percent would back the McCain ticket, but 10 percent would not vote at all in the presidential race, and 19 percent would vote for someone else.
All this might seem odd to the casual observer. But anyone who has followed McCain's career in the United States Senate has seen his propensity to irritate the conservative base. It's not just his reputation for being hotheaded. It's his stand on issues that often seem more Democratic than Republican.
"He's not a Republican," says Joe Wanninger, a claims adjuster from Cincinnati, who attended the CPAC meeting here. "I agree with McCain on the war," says Mr. Wanninger, "but that's the only thing I can think of." Even so, Wanninger says he will vote for McCain in the fall. Do anything else, he says, "and you throw the troops overboard."