When I went to my hometown precinct caucus in 2006, there were 60 people in attendance. On Tuesday night, over 1000 showed up for this year’s big night. Nationwide, voter turnout was record-breaking for the nomination of our next president.
Sen. John McCain was one of those candidates that headed into Tuesday with high expectations set for him by the media, but he did not meet all of them. With Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee still nipping at his heels, McCain can now be considered the weakest Republican front-runner in the last quarter-century.
Now, conservatives have dug their feet in and are preparing for a long, drawn-out battle over the future of the conservative movement in America.
McCain’s weaknesses are limited in quantity, but their importance to card-carrying members of the party is huge. McCain supported a bill in the U.S. Senate that would have granted amnesty to illegal immigrants, and he spearheaded a bill to limit political expenditures, creating secondary problems like George Soros and his billion dollar campaign fund. At a time when most conservatives are looking for a way to get back on course and to unite their party, the prospect seems like a tall order.
Romney’s stances on the economy and business, as well as his strong views on immigration and military strength, make him attractive to a large segment of conservatives. In Minnesota, we witnessed the effects of Romney’s campaign on the masses when he walloped McCain by nearly 20 percentage points. Romney repeated this trend in most of the western states and in his home state of Massachusetts.
For Mike Huckabee, Tuesday night was literally “do or die.” His performance among evangelicals and Southerners will definitely keep him in the race, at least for a few more weeks. His delegate count could now make him a strong player at the Republican Convention in St. Paul, or he could just deny a fair and legitimate democratic process to voters, like he did in the West Virginia Convention. It was there that McCain and Huckabee both feared a Romney victory, so they made a deal to give McCain’s votes to Huckabee, just for the sake of stopping Romney.
So what does a three-way, inconclusive Tuesday result mean for the GOP? It means the race isn’t over until it’s over, and that McCain may be one of the weakest “leaders” of any of his predecessors at this same point in the game over the past 50 years. If he is to continue on to the general election, McCain will need to stop playing games with conservatives and start defending his actual stance on the issues. His record contradicts what he is saying on the campaign trail, which contradicts what he tells news reporters on TV.
McCain has been working so long to court his moderate and liberal supporters, that he forgot the conservatives have been watching him since his loss in 2000 to President George W. Bush. McCain may do well in states with large numbers of moderates, but it’s not the moderates that win elections. That fact plays on both sides of the aisle; moderates give less money and time to candidates than party activists, because they have less at stake, in their own eyes. Usually, moderates will not go door to door on a pavement-pounding frenzy to elect a candidate, make phone calls, attend events, or even show up at caucus night. But to McCain’s credit, many of his supporters proved that theory wrong last night.
For Huckabee and Romney supporters, the answer might be located between a rock and a hard place: align with one of the two conservative candidates or side with McCain. I say that because last night’s split among important states by these two essentially cleared the way for McCain to easily take states in which conservatives were split.
Earlier this week, conservative radio hosts aligned behind Romney to express their distaste for McCain, with some on the campaign even referring to McCain as another “Bob Dole.” With all due respect to the former senator and war hero, it is hard for McCain to escape comparison with the older generation of politicians, especially after Dole’s defeat in 1996 to former President Bill Clinton. That year, conservatives made a dangerous miscalculation, appointing the “next in line” nominee to the general election without enough careful consideration of electable characteristics.
With McCain still vulnerable, this is the time for conservatives to decide which direction they want their party to head. As in 2006, it will not be enough for conservatives to simply not show up if they are upset with the candidate, and many McCain supporters have expressed this same fear. In order to solidify his front-runner status, McCain will have to rev-up the “straight-talk express” and make peace with the many enemies he’s made. For Romney and Huckabee, some kind of factor will have to change, whether it’s through endorsements or a stumble by one of the candidates.
One thing is for sure: This contest is far from over and, as we’ve learned, any campaign can make a comeback.
Andy Post welcomes comments at [email protected]