McCain Didn't Close the Deal

John McCain’s strong showing in the February 5 primaries wasn’t enough to close the deal.  He could have done it by winning enough delegates to be the prohibitive favorite or — conversely — by Mitt Romney making so poor a showing that he would be unwilling to fight on. 

Before sunrise Wednesday, this is how it lined up:

McCain won ten of the twenty-one Republican primaries and caucuses, including five winner-take-all contests, resulting in a total (according to the Associated Press count) of 610 delegates of the 1191 needed to clinch the Republican nomination.  The strong showing in WTA states of Missouri and New York were a substantial part of McCain’s total.  McCain apparently also won delegate-rich California (though returns are not yet final, and California is not a WTA state).

Mitt Romney’s showing was poor, scoring only 266 delegates.  Mike Huckabee came in  third at 190.  (These totals will vary as the California results become final.)

McCain came close, but may not have achieved the prohibitive favorite status that would guarantee Romney’s exit.   Despite Gov. Mike Huckabee’s early (about 10:30 EST) declaration of a two-man race — him and McCain — Mitt Romney isn’t quitting.  Romney  said – only a few minutes after Huckabee’s pronouncement that, “This campaign is going on.” 

It’s hard to see, though, how long Romney can continue.  Now that McCain has momentum, Romney needs a probable path to the nomination to remain credible in the next round of primaries.  Since the 1970s, Republicans have won the White House when they have solidly seized the southern states. But when the returns came in, Romney placed third in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia.  His wins — in Utah and Massachusetts primaries, and Alaska and North Dakota caucuses – are too scattered and small to provide a realistic foundation for a nomination.

Mike Huckabee’s showing yesterday was stronger than many had imagined.  Winning in West Virginia’s caucuses early in the day, Huckabee partnered with McCain to block Romney.  Later, in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee, Huckabee proved he could boost a national ticket from the vice presidential slot. 

A McCain-Huckabee ticket now appears a real possibility. The two get along better than either does with Romney. If they are strong in the remaining February primaries — DC, Maryland, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin — Romney’s chances may evaporate before month’s end.

Tomorrow, both McCain and Romney will address the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC.  (Huckabee will appear on Saturday morning).  The speech McCain will give could be the best opportunity McCain will have to reach out to conservatives and bring them into the fold before the September 1-4 St. Paul, Minnesota Republican convention.

One source told me last night that McCain is planning an all-out push at CPAC.  At 3 pm tomorrow, McCain is scheduled to address the crowd expected to number over 6,000 activists.  And McCain plans a very special introduction. 

According to my source, McCain has prepared a video featuring President Ronald Reagan to make the introduction. If McCain uses this video, it is very likely to backfire badly.  This is the group before which Ronald Reagan said in 1975 that, “A political party cannot be all things to all people. It must represent certain fundamental beliefs which must not be compromised to political expediency or simply to swell its numbers.” 

Very few of the 2008 CPAC crowd will see McCain as the successor to Reagan and Reagan’s principles.  McCain has sacrificed conservatives’ fundamental beliefs throughout his Senate career.  If McCain uses this introduction, the boos will be very loud.

McCain faces a real quandary.  If he fails at CPAC — and doesn’t win the CPAC straw poll (he finished dead last in 2007) — the word will be out that the conservatives are off his team this year.  The results of the poll will be announced at about 2 pm Saturday.  McCain can do a few things at CPAC that could help.

First, he could throw away the Reagan video introduction.  If he uses it at CPAC — a house that Reagan built — he could alienate a large portion of the conservatives he needs.

Second, he could say a lot more than he has so far on three key issues:  Supreme Court appointments, the war and illegal immigration.

By January 2009, more than half of the Supreme Court justices will be over the age of 70.  It’s likely that the next president will have four or five nominations, especially if he (or she) is a two-term president. After the reports of McCain’s dismissive remarks about the conservatism of Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito (reported last week by Bob Novak and John Fund) McCain must convince conservatives that the justices he would try to appoint would be of the same judicial temperament as Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.  McCain must say clearly and concisely that he would only appoint justices whose views are strict constructionist and that he would fight to get them through a Democrat-dominated Senate.

On the war, McCain needs to say more than just repeat his commitment to the troop surge.  The surge is already ending and by late spring, most of the combat power committed to the surge will have to be withdrawn because we lack the troop strength to sustain it.  What comes next is vital to success, and McCain needs to describe what he intends to do.  He needs to say something like what Rudy Giuliani said throughout his aborted campaign: that America will remain on offense against terrorists and the nations that support them.

Third, and most importantly to many conservatives, McCain must argue convincingly that he really did learn the lessons conservatives taught him at great pains to both sides.  He has said that he knows border security must come first, but his answers to questions both on Meet the Press and in the CNN debate before the Florida primary were evasive.  Will he sign legislation that establishes a path to citizenship for the 12 to 20 million illegals already here?  If he doesn’t commit to rejecting that idea, he will not win over the conservative community he needs to win in November.

Presidential campaigns are like the life of a pilot:  hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer panic.  They have become a seemingly-endless marathon punctuated by sprints like the one preceding Super Tuesday.  But this week’s sprint isn’t over. For John McCain, the finish line is at CPAC, after his Thursday speech.  McCain has to finish first at CPAC or risk a disunited party this fall.