Posted by: Michael Medved
To explain the startling success of Senator John McCain in the fight for the GOP presidential nomination, talk radio hosts and columnists who loathe the Arizona Senator cite an alleged split on the conservative side between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. According to this reasoning (explicitly advanced by Laura Ingraham, Hugh Hewitt and many others) if only Huckabee withdrew as a candidate, Mitt Romney could unite conservative cadres and pull out an upset victory on Super-Duper Tuesday.
Of course, Huckabee won’t leave the race (in at least six of Tuesday’s state contests he’s running well ahead of Romney) and the argument that he should rests on distorted history and illogical assumptions.
Some of my fellow commentators on the right seem to believe that the minority “moderate” wing of the party has united behind McCain because they had no other candidate, and the much larger conservative base in the GOP fatally split its votes among a number of once-viable alternatives.
These conclusions are flat-out wrong--- both about the party’s ruling conservatives and its remaining moderates.
WRONG ABOUT CONSERVATIVES
To believe that Huck and Mitt are dividing conservatives, you have to believe that Huckabee is a conservative --- which Romney, Limbaugh, Igraham, and countless others have been denying (stridently and strenuously) for months. Romney spent millions on negative ads in Iowa trying to label Huckabee as a liberal RINO—slamming him as soft on immigration, soft on crime, a big spender, a tax hiker and so forth (the same sort of attacks that they’re now applying to McCain). Fred Thompson pronounced Huckabee a “pro-life LIBERAL” and Rush delivered daily diatribes about how the former Arkansas governor was not “a conservative.” So, has Huckabee now suddenly morphed into a true conservative just to give Romniacs an excuse for the failure of their guy to rally the rightwing base?
Either the elite commentators were wrong when they labeled Huckabee a “liberal populist,” or they are wrong now when they say he’s stealing conservative votes from Romney. The only other alternative is that they view conservative voters as just too stupid to see Huckabee for what he really is.
As to the idea that rock-solid, true-blue Reaganites were divided by too many candidates on the conservative side of the party, where’s the evidence of that?
It’s true that a lot of candidates tried to rally the base but most of them (Tom Tancredo, Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Tommy Thompson, Jim Gilmore, Alan Keyes) got absolutely nowhere.
Nor did Fred Thompson (who co-sponsored McCain-Feingold, and compiled a voting record virtually identical to McCain’s during his years in the Senate) draw significant conservative support that hurt Romney. In Iowa, where Huckabee smashed Romney by nine points, Thompson and McCain tied for third. Did Thompson really take more votes away from Romney than McCain took away from Huckabee? In South Carolina, Thompson again finished third – and Romney finished fourth. Even if every one of Fred’s votes had gone to Romney, their combined total still would have fallen 3% (40,000 votes) behind McCain.
WRONG ABOUT MODERATES
But the analysis is also dead wrong that says that McCain’s been winning because he had moderate voters all to himself while conservatives divided their support among several candidates.
Through the entire campaign, Mac has had to compete for moderate or centrist Republican voters (and independents, in those primaries where they could vote) with Rudy Giuliani. Unlike McCain, Rudy has a long background as a moderate on issues like abortion, gay rights, and gun control, where Mac has been solidly conservative. Rudy also ran ahead of McCain in virtually all polls last year, and raised triple the money the Arizona Senator managed to put together. At one point, Rudy held the polling lead in South Carolina, and was competing with Mitt Romney for the lead in New Hampshire and Michigan and Nevada.
In other words, it makes no sense to say McCain had moderates to himself while Mitt had to struggle with other conservatives – especially since Rush, Sean, Savage, Laura and countless others relentlessly labeled Huckabee as a “moderate” or a “liberal,” who would be competing for those votes with Mac and Rudy, rather than drawing conservative votes from Romney.
In Florida, McCain’s victory was all the more impressive because Rudy was a powerful factor – investing far more resources into the state, and drawing more votes (15% to 13%) than Mike Huckabee. In other words, even if you assume that Huck and Mitt split conservatives (a very dubious assumption, as noted above), then Giuliani took even more votes away from McCain. Just for the record, the allegedly “moderate” vote in Florida (McCain plus Giuliani) totaled 51% while the allegedly “conservative” vote (Romney plus Huckabee, PLUS Fred Thompson’s 1%) totaled 45%. In other words, even if you combine the votes for all the purportedly “conservative” candidates it doesn’t provide enough support to top the “non-conservatives” who backed Mac and Rudy in a very high turn out primary.
Here’s the SLAM DUNK regarding the stupid argument that if only Huck dropped out, Mitt would surge to victory:
All of the three major national polls taken in the last three days (Fox News, ABC/Washington Post and Gallup) show that even if every single voter who backs Huckabee, switched to Romney (an impossibility, of course), McCain still wins across the country. The numbers, if you’re interested, of McCain supporters vs. the combined total of Romney and Huckabee supporters --- 48 to 39% (Fox News), 48 to 40% (ABC News/Washington Post) and 43 to 42% (Gallup). Meanwhile, all indications are that for many of the Huck-a-nuts—perhaps even a majority – their second choice would be McCain, not Romney.
WRONG ABOUT McCAIN
If you can’t explain McCain’s success by arguing that there’s been a big split among the party’s conservatives, then how can the Senator’s critics come to terms with his surging campaign?
Maybe they ought to recognize the obvious – they’re wrong about Johnny Mac and his appeal.
In state after state, Exit Polls show McCain drawing substantial backing among self-described “conservative” voters. It’s true that he’s weaker with such Republicans than among so-called moderates, but he’s strong enough (drawing over a quarter of conservatives, consistently and reliably, in the divided field) to indicate that many conservatives are simply ignoring the howls from talk radio that McCain is a secret liberal.
Sure, Ann Coulter claims that Hillary Clinton is “more conservative” than McCain, and says that she plans to campaign for Hillary (won’t that be fun?). But who knows the Arizona Senator better – Ann C. (who has very possibly never met him) or the solid, conservative Senate leaders (Tom Coburn, Johnny Isaakson, Saxby Chambliss, Richard Burr, John Kyl, Trent Lott, Phil Gramm, John Thune, Norm Coleman) who’ve worked beside McCain every day for years and have come forward to endorse him for the nomination? These guys earn nearly perfect voting records from the American Consrvative Union--- Trent Lott, for instance, got a lifetime 92% (even better than McCain's 82.3%), but he vouches for his long-time colleague as a solid, courageous pro-life conservative. Fred Thompson had a less consistent conservative record than Lott (86%) and very close to McCain's, and yet commentators readily embraced him as a "consistent conservative."
As to Mitt Romney, he is certainly a good man and a good candidate and a strong standard bearer for conservatives. Those who back Mitt deserve respect, and should proudly work hard for their guy on Tuesday.
But don’t pretend that McCain is only winning because divisions among conservatives have allowed some squishy moderate to sneak to victory.
It’s true that conservatives are divided in the upcoming primaries.
Some (perhaps a plurality) back Mitt Romney, a strong conservative
Some back Mike Huckabee, a strong (though much maligned) conservative.
Some back Mike Huckabee, a strong (though much maligned) conservative.
And some of us back John McCain, as the strongest and most consistent conservative in the race.
May the best man win.