Pundits and campaign operatives have been billing the February 5 round of almost two-dozen primaries as “Tsunami Tuesday.” It was supposed to wipe out candidates and push others right up to their party’s nomination. There may have been a wave, but it broke before it hit the shore. The Democrats still have a two-candidate race and while Senator McCain may have won a significant number of delegates tonight, and inched closer to the nomination, he still has a way to go to secure the GOP nomination.
One thing is for sure on the Republican side: if you are the front runner for the GOP nomination, don’t get into a public fight with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin and Ann Coulter. Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee were serious competition for John McCain, and these conservative icons represent millions of conservatives “across the fruited plain” as Rush would say. Their audiences are conservative to the core and they vote. It’s hard to measure, but their heated opposition to McCain probably hurt him yesterday and will continue to do so.
After his impressive South Carolina and Florida victories, Senator McCain emerged as the clear front runner for the Republican nomination. Tradition says Super Tuesday voters are often band wagon voters who tend to put the front runner over the top toward the nomination. Not so on Tsunami Tuesday. While McCain certainly had a good showing tonight, wrapping up the most delegates, Rush and Company became a radio wrecking crew emphasizing Senator McCain’s rocky relationship with the right and demonstrating how important conservatives are going to be to the Republican nominee in what is certain to be a close general election.
There is no clear excitement or enthusiasm for Senator McCain’s front runner status at this point. Governor Huckabee finished fourth in Florida and had not won since his Iowa victory a month ago. He went into Super Tuesday’s massive vote with very little money and virtually no momentum. Yet, tonight, Huckabee’s southern bible-belt strategy worked awarding him with a handful of surprising victories and a healthy number of delegates as his campaign works its way to Minneapolis. While Senator McCain may have tossed his delegates to Governor Huckabee in a tag team political maneuver to prevent Governor Romney from a West Virginia victory, Huckabee’s strong southern showing wound up highlighting Senator McCain’s weak front runner status.
For Mitt Romney, he placed a number of big bets. His strategy was to win California, knock out Huckabee, emerge as the sole conservative challenger to McCain and then take his financial resources and political machine into next week’s Potomac Primary in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Romney and Huckabee continue to splinter the conservative and evangelical vote providing a favorable political climate for Senator McCain. Senator McCain may very well ultimately win the nomination, but he will have done so without an energized base, a dangerous scenario going into a general election. George Bush would likely not have won in 2000 and 2004 without an energized conservative base. It is this base that rings the phones, knocks on the doors, and advocates loudly on radio, television and over the Internet to get out the vote.
As the campaign goes on Senator McCain must look for ways to reach out and energize the conservative base between now and the convention. He must put some conservative issues on the table for the GOP base to take another look and consider. Senator McCain’s speech this week before the Conservative Political Action Conference is crucial. The venue offers an opportunity and a potential turning point for his campaign. It is an opportunity for him to highlight some new conservative policy themes and to define Hillary and Obama as modern day Mondale, advocating for higher taxes, liberal judicial activism, socialized medicine, big government regulation, abortion on demand, and a weak national defense. McCain needs to stop engaging in fights with beloved conservative icons and leaders and start defining the differences between the two parties, differences that can position him as a center-right candidate in a general election.