By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
HAMILTON, N.J. On Tuesday night, Americans will finally learn whether John McCain can wrest the Republican presidential nomination from his powerful and well-funded opponent: Rush Limbaugh.
Technically, the conservative radio host won't be on the ballot in the 21 states holding GOP contests on Super Tuesday, but he might as well be. Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and most of the other warriors of the airwaves have made an all-out effort to turn their millions of listeners against McCain -- so much so that the candidate can't decide which of them is his main foe.
"I'm not sure; they're all equally striving hard for first place," McCain said as his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, made its way north on the New Jersey Turnpike on the eve of Super Tuesday. "Sometimes it surprises me," he allowed. "I've never, over all these years, had any encounters with them in any way, so in some ways the ferocity is, shall I say, a little surprising."
Surprising or not, McCain is right about the ferocity.
"If he's our candidate, then Hillary's going to be our girl," Coulter said on Fox News, "because she's more conservative than he is. . . . I will campaign for her if it's McCain."
Limbaugh, declaring that a McCain nomination would "destroy the Republican Party," said: "I can see possibly not voting for the Republican nominee."
Other talkers -- Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, Michelle Malkin, Michael Reagan and Michael Savage -- have piled on as well, but less, it seems, out of affection for McCain opponent Mitt Romney than a shared antipathy toward McCain. But the campaign comes at a risk: If the senator from Arizona wins on Tuesday night, the much-feared talk-show hosts (Limbaugh and Hannity alone have more than 25 million weekly listeners) will be seen as paper tigers.
Holding court for reporters aboard his bus, a confident McCain folded his arms across his chest and delivered a bring-'em-on taunt to his radio foes. "I don't think that Romney's going to succeed in getting to the right of me," he said.
The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza asked whether the radio hosts' displeasure might be explained by "the fact that you never tried to court these people, suck up to them like Romney did."
"Great question!" McCain answered, laughing at the thought. "I never would suck up the way all those other guys did, those suck-ups."
Limbaugh seems to be enjoying the battle as much as McCain, even delivering a mock concession speech on his radio show last week after the senator won the Florida primary. "The Republican establishment, which has long sought to rid the party of conservative influence since Reagan, is feeling a victory today as well as our friends in the media," he said. "But both are just far-fetched and wrong."
McCain's aides say the candidate has emerged unscathed. "They've been at it now on the talk-radio shows at a sustained level for weeks," strategist Steve Schmidt, riding in the back of the bus, told reporters, and yet "his approval ratings among conservatives in this country are in the 80s."
But the talkers get under McCain's skin, as when former senator Rick Santorum, who used Ingraham's radio show to endorse Romney, questioned McCain's "temperament" and referred to the "Twisted Talk Express."
"I guess he's found out something about me since he lost the election which he was unaware of when he was desperately seeking me to go to Pennsylvania to campaign for him," McCain theorized.
Campaigning in Boston on Monday morning, he offered nothing to social conservatives in his stump speech. Sounding much like a candidate who has already locked up the nomination, he stuck to security and the economy.
"As president of the United States, I will preserve my proud conservative Republican credentials, but I will reach across the aisle to the Democrats and work together for the good of the country," he said, to sustained applause from the crowd in Faneuil Hall. Beneath a portrait of Daniel Webster and John Adams, he introduced a disaffected Democratic supporter, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
Before he finished his speech, he raised another heresy: the scandals and "evil" that put Republican former congressmen Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney in prison. McCain used a question-and-answer session after the speech to take a shot at President Bush's new $3 trillion budget proposal. "We lost the 2006 election because of spending," he said. "It dispirited our base, spending got completely out of control, it led to corruption."
But another question, about the "hard-core conservatives who are apparently getting nervous about your potential win," brought McCain back to his battle with the Limbaugh base. "Compare our records," he said, reciting complaints about Romney's profligacy.
The questions about McCain's rift with conservatives continued later, aboard the candidate's bus in New Jersey, when he talked about his plans to address the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday. "I hope I can remind them of my strong conservative principles," he said.
Complicating that effort, however, was the presence on the bus of Rudy Giuliani, an unabashed moderate on social issues, who piped up about McCain's crossover appeal. "John reaches out to independents probably as strongly as any Republican," he said of his former presidential rival.
That, of course, is just what the Limbaugh lobby is afraid of. And McCain knows he has a lot of work to do to win over the talk-show crowd. "I don't underestimate the challenge of uniting our party," he said. On that, even Coulter would have to agree.