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.
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."
Ultimately, Ms. Worden expects to support the McCain ticket, but she will have a lot more enthusiasm if he picks an appealing vice presidential running mate.
The Republican hierarchy clearly worries about a McCain letdown, especially since an exciting race is drawing huge turnouts among Democrats.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich points out that on Super Tuesday, 14.6 million people
d in Democratic elections, while only 8.3 million went to the polls for the GOP.
Mr. Gingrich calls that "a warning of a catastrophic election…. And if we want to get to be competitive, we had better change and we had better change now."
Competitive, however, requires energized, excited conservatives.
What has upset conservatives about McCain? In the mid-1990s, McCain's conservative credentials were sterling. His conservative rating from National Journal peaked in 1994 at 89.2 – the eighth highest in the Senate.
Then things went downhill. In 2001 and 2003, he opposed the historic Bush tax cuts. By 2004, his conservative rating fell to 51.7, which put him 49th in the Senate.
The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law also dented his reputation. It put such intrusive limits on political speech that Gingrich flatly calls the law "unconstitutional."
Perhaps McCain's most destructive clash with his party was the Kennedy-McCain immigration reform bill that was ultimately blocked in the Senate.
The bill provided for a quasi-amnesty, or as supporters put it, a "path to citizenship" for the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal migrants now in the US.
Bob Shoemaker, a retired federal employee from Vienna, Va., echoed others at CPAC when he scoffed at the McCain assertion that he has learned his lesson from the public uproar over his bill.
Mr. Shoemaker explains: "McCain says he's learned the lesson: people want the border guarded. But that is not the lesson. People don't want amnesty."
He adds: "Once you give amnesty, their children, brothers, and sisters can come in under family reunification laws. So it isn't going to be 20 million. It's going to be 70 million to 100 million." Most of these migrants would be poor, uneducated, and would vote Democratic, Shoemaker says. "The Republican Party is promoting its own demise."
He says he won't vote for McCain.
Worried GOP leaders who hear these complaints are urging fellow conservatives to swallow their unhappiness and vote for McCain. In the shortterm, they may be right. But conservatives remember that out of the Goldwater defeat 44 years ago, Ronald Reagan rose to lead the most successful Republican presidency of the past half century.
• John Dillin is a former managing editor and Washington correspondent for the Monitor.