Now Rush Limbaugh says he's doing Sen. John McCain a favor. By crashing down hard on the likely Republican presidential nominee for not being far enough to the right, the conservative talk-radio host maintains he is making Senator McCain more competitive among Independents and moderates.
There may be some truth to that, analysts say, but in the end, winning over conservatives remains central to McCain's ability to win in November. If the base of the GOP isn't enthusiastic about its nominee, its foot soldiers won't work for his campaign and may not be motivated enough to vote in November. That could be so particularly if Sen. Hillary Clinton, the ultimate unifier of Republicans, is not the Democratic nominee.
But in a general election that pits McCain against Sen. Barack Obama, who draws major support from Independents and even some Republicans, McCain will have to satisfy the conservative base and remain competitive with Senator Obama among Independents, who represent one-third of the overall electorate.
This week, McCain won all three GOP primaries by decent margins, but the exit polls in Virginia and Maryland demonstrated his weak spots. In both states, McCain lost to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee among voters who self-identify as "very conservative." McCain can't win the presidency without winning Virginia. And there, where 31 percent of GOP voters are "very conservative," Mr. Huckabee beat McCain 65 percent to 25 percent.
Republican analysts say it's too soon to suggest that conservatives may not turn out for McCain in November, and that once both parties have presumptive nominees, issue differences will be evident, and Republicans will spring to life.
Even if Obama is the nominee, once differences on issues such as Iraq, taxes, and healthcare become clear, so will the choice for conservatives, says Republican pollster David Winston.
All through primary season, there was no clear consensus candidate among the very conservative. "Now that we're starting to get a consensus, some are disappointed," says Mr. Winston. "But ultimately, I think you'll get a coalescence of conservatives around McCain."
Winston isn't worried about having Huckabee still in the race – the Arkansan is not attacking the way Mitt Romney did, until he dropped out last week. McCain campaign manager Rick Davis says it's "perfectly fine with us" for Huckabee to be campaigning and "keeping us in the narrative" as the news media focus on Obama versus Clinton.
But, "I would like John McCain to be the nominee of the party and the sooner that happens the better off it is for all of us here, certainly me," Mr. Davis told reporters in a Monitor luncheon on Wednesday.
Bit by bit, McCain is drawing conservatives to his side. Family values activist Gary Bauer endorsed McCain this week. On Wednesday, House Republican leaders endorsed him, after the senator met with the caucus in what Davis described as a "frank and very open conversation."
Fundraising – another indicator of support – remains an issue for McCain going forward, Davis acknowledges. The McCain campaign has pledged to accept federal funding in the general election.
"Taking that money is a lot easier for me than having to go out and raise $100 million," Davis says. "We haven't really proved we are able to attract large sums of money the way the Democrats have.… I don't know if it is because we are lousy at fundraising or Republicans are tired of giving money to politicians…. If I were raising $35 million a month [like Obama] I would think that through."