McCain: a maverick no more?
His mixed victories signal a need to become a party unifier – or the GOP will crash-land.
John McCain's big boost on Super Tuesday has also ripped open distinct ideological strands in the Republican Party. To show he's a leader able to win broadly in November, this maverick will need to show that he can weave his own party together.
The country's taste for "change" and an end to polarizing politics is strong. But bridging the ideological splits within a widely diverse GOP won't be easy after this nationwide party contest.
In the key state of California, for instance, Senator McCain won the popular vote and most of the delegates but took only a third of the votes among those who define themselves as conservatives. In the bellwether state of Missouri, he squeaked by with an overall 33 percent win. In his home state of Arizona, he lost the self-described conservatives.
In fact, even though McCain now leads comfortably in the delegate count, the vote tallies in many states showed former governors Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee winning a combined majority of the votes.
Mr. Huckabee's four-state primary win in the South put a spotlight on McCain's weakness among social conservatives. Mr. Romney's victories in seven northern states reveal his attraction as an economic conservative.
Playing to his strength, McCain has already helped force his fellow national-security conservative Rudy Giuliani out of the race. The Arizona senator has limited time before the remaining primaries to knit a broadly based coalition, as Ronald Reagan did, that somehow brings together the party's ideological legs.
His first test comes Thursday when the GOP candidates speak before the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington. But McCain's strength so far has been in reaching over the heads of the party's true-red conservative leaders and talk radio hosts to appeal to grass-roots moderates. That explains how McCain went from a back-of-the-pack candidate last summer to this week's top gun.
In fact, the 2008 election campaigns in both parties show that the perception of each party establishment of the inevitable winner can be beat by a new style of politics, reflected in the campaigns of McCain and Barack Obama.
Their appeal also may lie in part in an image that they are better able to reach out to opponents instead of adopting Washington's take-no-prisoners approach.
That appeal, along with their calls for people to serve causes greater than their own self-interest, has attracted many independents who mix and match ideologies, the way McCain does on various issues.
For GOP stalwarts on particular issues, such as taxes, abortion, and Iraq, that loss of purity is difficult to accept. For a party that prizes the rights of the individual, many Republicans don't appreciate McCain's ideological individuality.
Can McCain now rise to the challenge of being a unifier after being a long-time maverick? He'll need to reveal more of his base philosophy that can straddle the party divide and perhaps America's.
He's won so far based on his character and his record as a war hero. But it's time to climb out of the cockpit of being a lone but brave fighter pilot in politics. He needs to wave in many Republicans who disagree with him on a few key issues.
Otherwise the party will crash land in November.