This Time, McCain Defused Conservative Attacks

By Juliet Eilperin and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 20, 2008

CHARLESTON, S.C., Jan. 19 -- From Rush Limbaugh to Tom DeLay, voices that once held sway over the Republican rank and file unloaded on John McCain over the last week, trying to use a conservative electorate in South Carolina to derail the Arizona senator's quest for the Republican nomination.

But though McCain failed to persuade many of the old Republican power brokers, he wrapped up the Republican establishment where it counted most, South Carolina. His win Saturday underscored how different McCain's campaign has been this year compared with eight years ago, when a similar conservative assault effectively ended his campaign here and handed his party's presidential nomination to George W. Bush.

"I think the people of South Carolina are getting to know John McCain now, a little more than they know those folks anymore," longtime McCain aide Mark Salter said Saturday night of the senator's old nemeses.

Limbaugh led the way with a verbal blitz, not just against McCain but against his closest rival in South Carolina, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

"I'm here to tell you, if either of these two guys get the nomination, it's going to destroy the Republican Party. It's going to change it forever, be the end of it," Limbaugh fumed on his radio show Tuesday. It was a line of argument that he kept up all week long.

DeLay resurfaced on Fox News Friday to excoriate McCain for working with "the most liberal Democrats in the Senate," for passing an overhaul of campaign finance laws that "completely neutered the Republican Party," and single-handedly thwarted oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"McCain has done more to hurt the Republican Party than any elected official I know of," said DeLay, the former House majority leader, who was personally damaged by McCain's Senate probe of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a probe that implicated numerous DeLay associates.

Conservative blogger Patrick Ruffini, on the Web site of popular radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, implored South Carolina Republicans on Friday to vote for Huckabee, simply to extend the nomination fight in hopes that another candidate could derail McCain.

And Jim DeMint, South Carolina's ardently conservative senator who is backing Mitt Romney, issued a message Friday to "fellow conservatives," warning that "Washington experience is the problem, not the solution. We cannot afford to have a President who has fought for amnesty for illegal immigrants, voted against the Bush Tax Cuts, and curtailed our First Amendment rights in the ill-conceived campaign finance legislation." He never mentioned McCain's name, but his meaning was clear.

The assault may well have narrowed McCain's lead over Huckabee, but it was not enough to revive the ghosts of 2000, when an insurgent McCain campaign slammed into a wall in South Carolina, and Bush, the establishment's candidate, cruised to the White House.

In part, that was because this time McCain lined up staunch conservatives of his own, including Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), usually DeMint's closest ally, and Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), who was vociferous in McCain's defense. "I know John McCain, and he is a solid conservative -- maybe not perfect, but on the most critical issue facing our nation, radical Islam, he is without equal in either party, period," Shadegg said in McCain's defense.

In part, the attacks fell short because even the opponents could not unite behind an alternative. Many economic conservatives were even more opposed to Huckabee. Romney, a Mormon, could not ignite the interests of social conservatives. And former senator Fred Thompson, who was initially viewed as the candidate of the old Republican coalition, failed to catch fire.

But McCain also ran a very different campaign this year. The senator assembled a formidable list of South Carolina backers, including Attorney General Henry McMaster and House Speaker Bobby Harrell, who not only crisscrossed the state for McCain but also launched a "Truth Squad" that prevented any repeat of the attacks on his military record and rumors about his family that helped defeat him in 2000.

"In 2000, the campaign learned that you have to have people that local people know to respond to negative attacks, to assure them they're not true," said Harrell, a Bush supporter in 2000.

McCain even changed the hotel where he watched election returns and the location for his primary-night headquarters, shifting it to The Citadel, the state's military college.

The choice of The Citadel was not accidental. From the start, McCain conveyed one central message to South Carolinians: He is best prepared to protect America in a time of war. The argument resonated in a state that ranks No. 1 in terms of active-duty and retired military personnel, where a quarter of Saturday's GOP electorate had served in the military.

McCain counted heavily on conservative state politicians who had backed Bush in 2000. While some prominent South Carolinians -- such as former governor David Beasley -- endorsed Huckabee, McCain repeatedly told reporters this week, "This time we believe we have the political and financial establishment."

Above all, McCain's victory vindicated his belief that he was better off sticking with his core message that he was better equipped than any other candidate, Republican or Democrat, to meet the challenge of fighting what he calls "radical Islamic extremism."

"After a campaign is over, you win or you lose -- obviously, winning's most important -- you've got to look back and admit mistakes. But you never want to look back and be embarrassed by what you've done," McCain said Friday. "You can't tailor your message and position to one part of the country."

A win in South Carolina may not be as definitive as it was back in 2000, and McCain acknowledges that Florida, which holds its primary Jan. 29, remains a four-way race where he needs to expand his support beyond military families in the north and Cuban Americans in the south.

"We've got work to do there," he said, adding that he needs to reach out to supporters of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has spent months cultivating Florida voters. "If there's one area we need to work on, it's the middle of the state. There's condominiums full of people who have moved down from New York and New Jersey."

Weisman reported from Washington.

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