Rallying to McCain

By Robert D. Novak
Monday, January 21, 2008

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Sen. John McCain's win over Mike Huckabee in South Carolina was no landslide, but it stands as by far the most important win in his quest for the presidency. It means that McCain by any measurement is the front-runner for the Republican nomination. He leads in Florida's Jan. 29 primary, and a victory there would send him into what is virtually a national primary on Feb. 5 threatening to wipe out his competition.

The question is whether the Republican establishment's grudges will persist, as they have for former House majority leader Tom DeLay, to somehow keep from the nomination the candidate that Democrats believe would be the strongest Republican in the general election. The probable answer is no, because it is Republican nature to abhor a Democrat-like free-for-all and to seek an anointed candidate. McCain is far closer to such status than is his principal rival, Mitt Romney.

That is the importance of McCain's winning in conservative South Carolina, where George W. Bush trounced him in 2000. Huckabee's strong showing was an aberration (as was his win in the Iowa caucuses), with his disproportionate support from evangelical voters. Romney was the real threat to McCain here, but his massive television buy failed. Romney's embarrassing fourth-place finish was preordained when he abandoned the state two days before the primary to go to Nevada, where he essentially ran unopposed and where his win in the state's caucuses was fueled by fellow Mormons.

McCain's transition from 2000 maverick to 2008 establishmentarian was symbolized by his election-eve rally aboard the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier (now a museum) in Charleston harbor. Sen. Lindsey Graham, his top supporter here eight years ago, was at McCain's side, as usual. So were other prominent South Carolina Republicans, such as state House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Attorney General Henry McMaster -- plus McCain's longtime conservative ally, former Texas senator Phil Gramm.

But the most significant person on the Yorktown's platform was state Rep. Chip Limehouse, scion of a famous South Carolina Republican family who supported Bush in 2000 and this year did not make up his mind until Thursday. Limehouse told me he decided to back McCain because of concern about national security (an issue especially important in a state heavy with both military installations and veterans). But he added another factor: "I felt badly about what happened eight years ago" -- referring to the smear campaign against McCain in the state.

On Saturday, McCain came close to refuting the claim that he can win votes from everybody but Republicans. He cut into conservative bastions, nearly winning in Greenville, where Bush destroyed him in 2000. He received 25 percent of the evangelical vote, though Huckabee campaigned shamelessly as a man of God, and he won by landslide proportions among non-evangelicals.

The older, wiser McCain is more careful and less combative. On primary day here, as I sat with other reporters in the rear of McCain's "Straight Talk Express" bus, I asked him about DeLay's statement on Fox the night before. DeLay had said he could not vote for McCain even against Hillary Clinton because of the grave damage he had done to the Republican Party.

Graham, seated nearby, snorted in disbelief. But McCain limited himself to the polite comment that he and DeLay had disagreements. Indeed, the 2000 McCain's emphasis on campaign finance reform and opposition to tax cuts were missing from his 2008 campaigning here. He has adjusted his support for immigration reform to negate the issue.

But McCain has not entirely abandoned "straight talk" in seeking Republican anointment. I asked him Saturday whether he knew of any instance of an economic stimulus such as Bush's proposed $800-per-taxpayer handout actually averting a recession. He said that he did not and that the proposal bothered him.

That kind of answer by McCain has annoyed Republican grandees for years, but it also is what sets him apart from other politicians. It brought to South Carolina last week such endorsers as Sen. Tom Coburn, who maddens his Republican colleagues with his campaign against pork, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, who defied the Democratic Party's orthodoxy on Iraq. Even the GOP elders seem ready to grit their teeth and go along with McCain.

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