Joel's Two Cents
John McCain's Perfect Ride
By Joel Achenbach
How did John McCain become the certain Republican nominee? With what they call in horse racing a perfect ride.
Yes, there was that rather large stumble last year. The word "imploded" is the officially sanctioned journalistic term for what happened to the McCain campaign. But his timing was fabulous! Last anyone checked, the spring of 2007 had no scheduled primaries or caucuses. For candidates, reporters and political junkies, the campaign was going great guns, but for citizens, which is to say voters, it was an off year.
When the voting began, McCain consistently won where he had to win. He skipped Iowa and proved that it didn't matter. He maximized his delegate count per vote. He won South Carolina narrowly with 33 percent of the vote to Huckabee's 30 percent, but he got 18 delegates and Huckabee got only six. He won Florida with a titanic total, by McCain standards, of about 36 percent of the vote, and swept up all 57 delegates. With 42 percent of the vote in California, he got almost every delegate up for grabs (149 to Romney's six, according to AP). All told, McCain won 4,114,973 votes, while Romney snagged 3,471,691 and Huckabee 2,130,469.
E.J. Dionne today described how McCain's ride managed to skirt the South and the Mountain West and, in essence, the base of the Republican Party. That's going wide and ceding the rail, but McCain found good footing.
His perfect ride began before the election even got rolling, as Tony Blankley pointed out yesterday in the Washington Times. The strongest Republican candidate, Jeb Bush, found himself as a member of the one family in America effectively prohibited from offering a candidate. And George Allen stepped in macaca.
And perhaps a part of McCain's perfect ride happened a year ago, when McCain skipped the CPAC convention altogether.
It was risky. Everyone else showed up to woo the hard-core conservatives. Rudy Giuliani bombed, and though he went on to spend 2007 as the titular front-runner, the stony silence that greeted him at the Omni Shoreham may have prefigured his inability to connect with the party's base. Giuliani spent much of his speech praising Abraham Lincoln, apparently unaware that, in this particular crowd, Lincoln is widely hated (on doctrinal grounds involving federal government overreach, etc.).
The star of the show was Mitt Romney, who trucked in busloads of supporters, then touched on all the Reaganesque themes with perfect pitch. Few people have ever tried harder, or spent more money, or crafted ideological positions more feverishly, to ingratiate themselves with a political party's base. But he could never shake the odor of inauthenticity. It's fitting that Romney used CPAC as the place to make his exit.
McCain will probably never persuade conservatives that he is truly one of them. And by skipping CPAC last year, he avoided having to contort himself.
He'll show up at CPAC today, and it'll be interesting to see what he says. Mike Allen on WTOP this morning wondered aloud if McCain would be booed. This can be an edgy crowd. But the party's far right is no longer sitting in the power position. McCain is.
Posted at 1:43 PM ET on Feb 7, 2008
Joel's Two Cents
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