McCain claims a Super Tuesday surge
He's amassed twice the delegates of rival Romney. But the GOP's conservative wing remains resistant to his campaign.
Arizona Sen. John McCain's strong performance on Super Tuesday makes him the prohibitive favorite to win the Republican nomination for president.Skip to next paragraph
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But the surprisingly strong showing by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won five Southern states, and the victories of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in seven states mean that Senator McCain will not have the race effectively sewn up as quickly as he might like.
If Messrs. Huckabee and Romney compete in the next round of primaries and beyond, as they have pledged to do, that forces McCain to spend precious resources from his underfunded campaign and continue the tense internecine battle within the Republican Party. He would much prefer to focus his energies on the Democrats – particularly as their tight nomination battle promises to continue at least through next month, if not longer.
Since McCain's victory in nine of 21 states Tuesday, some party leaders, such as former GOP chair Haley Barbour, have suggested that the time has come for the weaker candidates to drop out and allow the party to coalesce around a presumptive nominee. The problem is that no one can tell Huckabee or Romney what to do. And there is a strong constituency within the party – centered in the conservative wing – that is holding out hope that the sometimes-mercurial McCain can be stopped.
"Both of them [Huckabee and Romney] have supporters who have very, very strong feelings against John McCain," says Dan Schnur, an aide to McCain in his 2000 presidential race who has not worked for any of the 2008 candidates. "If conservatives decide to come together for one last stand against McCain, they can probably derail him. But with such a strong showing from Huckabee, deciding who to coalesce behind becomes a more difficult consideration."
For anti-McCain conservatives, too, there may be some value in seeing Huckabee and Romney continue. The more delegates they accumulate, the greater their clout at the Republican National Convention in September. That could put pressure on McCain as he advances his agenda in the general election and in the formulation of the Republican platform.
On most issues, McCain adheres to Republican orthodoxy. He is a social conservative, a deficit hawk, and one of the Senate's staunchest supporters of the Iraq war. But at times he goes off the GOP reservation – such as with his support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants – and he makes conservatives uncomfortable.
"The base of this party wants loyalty to it," says independent pollster John Zogby. "On the other hand, McCain's strategy is going to have to be to play to his strength – which is in the middle – and take advantage of his ability to do that while the Democrats are divided."
Then, Mr. Zogby adds, McCain will have to finesse his differences with conservatives by promising appointments, including a smart choice for running mate. Two names already being mentioned are Mr. Barbour, now the governor of Mississippi, and Charlie Crist of Florida, another popular governor whose endorsement of McCain on the eve of the state's Jan. 29 primary helped the senator to a narrow victory that established his front-runner status.