Report from Memphis: Republican Opposition to McCain Mounts

MEMPHIS — With hours to go before the "straw vote" for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination is announced, delegates to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference began to grow louder in their complaints about a move to short-circuit the vote in favor of a "write-in" vote for President Bush (who is ineligible to run for a third term in ’08).

As potential presidential candidates Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee arrived at the Peabody Hotel to address more than 1,800 delegates to the SRLC, Arizona Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) called in his conference address last night: "Don’t vote for me, write in President Bush."

McCain explained that the ’06 midterm elections had to take priority over the ’08 nomination process and thus called for the Bush write-in as a means of demonstrating that. (Although the crowd politely applauded McCain’s remarks, an attempt to lead them to stand went nowhere; only two of the standing-room-only crowd, Michigan’s Republican National Committee members Chuck Yob and Holly Hughes actually stood up).

Others had different views. West Virginia State Party Chairman Rob Capehart told me, "John McCain clearly had a great deal of conviction and said what he truly believed — namely, that we have a tendency to focus on the horse race and not on the task at hand." Nevertheless, Capehart would not bless the Arizonan’s call for a Bush write-in and said he would participate in the straw vote. Delegate Rex Boyd of Birmingham, Ala., echoed this view and said, "I’m not sure of McCain’s motivation."

"I think some people are getting lost in what the straw vote is for," Tennessee’s GOP Vice Chairman Robin Smith told me. "For many activists in the party, this straw vote is very defining. They don’t only get to see and touch candidates but have an opportunity they never thought they would have — to make a national impact. This is good. To change the definition of the straw vote now is to defeat the purpose of its intent."

Alec Poitevant, who doubles as Georgia’s party chairman and GOP national committeeman (and is so far neutral in the ’08 race) added, "Straw votes are interesting. When I supported [then-Texas Sen.] Phil Gramm for president in 1996, he won many important straw votes. But Phil didn’t make the finish. If you win straw votes, you talk about it as a sign of support. If you don’t, you complain about the process."

Duck Story

The Peabody Hotel’s world-famous ducks continued to make their famous procession from the penthouse, down through an elevator, and up a red carpet to a fountain. With march music in the background, children cheered, photographs snapped shots, and politicians and pundits took a backseat to the ducks that whose twice-a-day comings and goings dwarfs everything and anything in the hotel.

As business center manager and former on-call Duckmaster Donald Fort told me, "Whether it’s a Sunday, holiday, whatever — the ducks go on." MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews, who is covering the SRLC, showed the ducks on his "Hardball program" yesterday and the Peabody returned the compliment by making Matthews an honorary duckmaster.