Monday, January 21, 2008

The McCain Rally

Robert Novak, who predicted earlier that McCain would win the GOP nomination, dissects McCain's rally coming out of the South Carolina primary:

Sen. John McCain's win over Mike Huckabee in South Carolina was no landslide, but it stands as by far the most important win in his quest for the presidency. It means that McCain by any measurement is the front-runner for the Republican nomination. He leads in Florida's Jan. 29 primary, and a victory there would send him into what is virtually a national primary on Feb. 5 threatening to wipe out his competition.

The question is whether the Republican establishment's grudges will persist, as they have for former House majority leader Tom DeLay, to somehow keep from the nomination the candidate that Democrats believe would be the strongest Republican in the general election. The probable answer is no, because it is Republican nature to abhor a Democrat-like free-for-all and to seek an anointed candidate. McCain is far closer to such status than is his principal rival, Mitt Romney.

That is the importance of McCain's winning in conservative South Carolina, where George W. Bush trounced him in 2000. Huckabee's strong showing was an aberration (as was his win in the Iowa caucuses), with his disproportionate support from evangelical voters. Romney was the real threat to McCain here, but his massive television buy failed. Romney's embarrassing fourth-place finish was preordained when he abandoned the state two days before the primary to go to Nevada, where he essentially ran unopposed and where his win in the state's caucuses was fueled by fellow Mormons.

McCain's transition from 2000 maverick to 2008 establishmentarian was symbolized by his election-eve rally aboard the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier (now a museum) in Charleston harbor. Sen. Lindsey Graham, his top supporter here eight years ago, was at McCain's side, as usual. So were other prominent South Carolina Republicans, such as state House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Attorney General Henry McMaster - plus McCain's longtime conservative ally, former Texas senator Phil Gramm.

But the most significant person on the Yorktown's platform was state Rep. Chip Limehouse, scion of a famous South Carolina Republican family who supported Bush in 2000 and this year did not make up his mind until Thursday. Limehouse told me he decided to back McCain because of concern about national security (an issue especially important in a state heavy with both military installations and veterans). But he added another factor: "I felt badly about what happened eight years ago" - referring to the smear campaign against McCain in the state.
It remains to be seen how the GOP establishment comes out for the Arizona Senator in Florida. But early indications are good for a McCain consolidation in the Sunshine State.