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McCain Aide Crunches the Delegate Numbers

John McCain, R-Ariz., works the aisle as his charter plane is decorated with red, white and blue streamers the morning after the Super Tuesday primary elections.

By Juliet Eilperin
ABOARD THE MCCAIN CAMPAIGN PLANE -- There's a fine line between number crunching and being cocky, and it's a line Charlie Black tried mightily to negotiate as he discussed Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) delegate count with reporters this afternoon.

Black -- McCain's chief strategist -- explained that after yesterday's primaries, his candidate now has 775 delegates, while former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney boasts 284, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has 205. (The Washington Post puts the totals at 601, 176 and 147, respectively.) A total of 1,191 delegates is needed to secure the nomination; 963 have yet to be elected.

So in order for one of McCain's rivals to outpace him, "one of them has to go win everything. Everything," Black said. And that has to happen despite the fact that 40 percent of the remaining contests distribute delegates proportionally, rather than in a winner-take-all system. "It's virtually impossible for one of these guys to beat us, just on the arithmetic."

California -- with its 170 delegates at stake yesterday -- helped provide McCain with his commanding lead. Romney captured just three congressional districts there for a total of nine delegates, while McCain got the rest.

Knowing how superstitious McCain is, Black didn't want to declare that the nomination race was over. "Obviously, we are all geared up to continue running as long as they want to run," he said of the other campaigns.

Indeed, McCain might be the last to know on the campaign about this new delegate count theory: When reporters told him about it, McCain initially responded, "Charlie lies." (He later elaborated, saying, "Charlie lies. It's his job.")

"I take his word for it. I don't have that kind of expertise," McCain added, noting that Black -- like many of his top aides -- works for free on the campaign. "I'm always comfortable with Charlie's lies. But, again, it's a good example of you get what you pay for."

In yet another example of Black's free advice, the longtime GOP strategist said he didn't worry too much about making an effort to enlist the backing of conservative luminaries such as radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh right away because they will come around to his boss once it becomes clear McCain will be the nominee.

"It doesn't have to be unanimous until it's over," Black said, sounding a touch like Yogi Berra. "When they understand, 'There's nothing, okay, there's nothing else we can do, it's McCain versus Clinton or Obama,' the huge difference will cause them to support McCain."

As for suffering attacks from conservatives in the meantime, he added, "You'd rather not have it, but we're surviving it nicely."

While McCain's aides were still finalizing the senator's campaign schedule for the next few days, Black said they would focus on Virginia -- which has its primary, along with Maryland and D.C., on Tuesday -- as well as Washington and Kansas, both of which have caucuses on Saturday. It was unclear whether McCain would make it out to Kansas -- where the GOP is split between moderates and conservatives, and where Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) is working to line up support for him.

McCain will work aggressively to win over D.C. area voters in the coming week. In Virginia, the campaign started airing television ads today and is counting on retiring Rep. Thomas M. Davis III to deploy his considerable political operation to boost the senator's chances. In Maryland, Black said McCain is likely to prevail because he enjoys support among the state's more moderate Republicans.

"I expect Virginia to be a huge three-way battleground, so we'll concentrate our effort there for a couple of days," Black said.

McCain, for his part, quipped that he looked forward to campaigning in Maryland by visiting the Naval Academy in Annapolis, "the scene of my [considerable] academic accomplishments." The senator graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy.

Black does differ with both McCain and the rest of the campaign staff on one question: He doesn't think GOP primary voters cast their ballots on the basis of which candidate they think has the best chance of winning in November.

"People don't vote on the basis of electability," he chided reporters. "How many times do I have to tell you that?"

Whereas Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters this morning before departing from Phoenix that when it comes to conveying a message to conservatives, "The argument he makes is: 'This is who I am, this is what I believe, and I'm the most electable Republican in November. If you care about having conservative judges, help me.' "

McCain, who will address the Conservative Political Action Conference tomorrow but has yet to finish his speech, said he planned to talk about how restraining federal spending will restore Republicans' faith in their party.

"I'm aware there's a very fine line between inspiring unity and pandering," he said. "You've gotta be careful."

By Web Politics Editor  |  February 6, 2008; 4:37 PM ET
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Next: Romney's Blitzkrieg Flop


By the way, thank you Republicans. You have given me faith that we are not all Bush/Cheney barbarians in this country. God bless America!

Posted by: johnsonc2 | February 7, 2008 8:08 PM | Report abuse

It is hilarious that someone as conservative as John McCain has to defend his conservatism. It shows you how far the authoritarian "conservatives" have come in redefining what that term means. It is "conservative" to spend more than you raise in taxes? Since when? He's not a conservative because he doesn't support our government torturing people? What kind of sick Nazis make up the "conservative" movement in our country, anyway? I don't support McCain, but he is the only Republican I could even consider - at least he is an honest man and a true American.

Posted by: johnsonc2 | February 7, 2008 8:04 PM | Report abuse

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