Searching for Winners

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008 9:13 AM

It was, by any definition, a big night for John McCain. Any definition, that is, except that of the networks, where anchors and pundits harped all night on the fact that some conservatives just don't like the guy.

The man who got the positive buzz was Mike Huckabee, underestimated by journalists before Iowa and underestimated again heading into Super Tuesday, indeed all but marginalized in all the coverage of the McCain-Romney showdown. Huck did better than expected, and that's what the media love.

The Democratic contest was closer, especially in delegates, and therefore harder to handicap. But the lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton was striking. If Barack Obama had won Massachusetts, there would have been plenty of clucking about the impact of his endorsement by Ted and Caroline Kennedy and how Obama was the new crown prince of Camelot. When Hillary won the state regardless, not so much. (Now the media swoon over the nod from Ted and Caroline seems as overblown as I've maintained it was. Journalists care about endorsements, and most voters don't.)

Here's how the bleary-eyed political writers are scoring it this morning:

LAT: "The crazy quilt of primary and caucus results gave Republicans a clear front-runner in Sen. John McCain, but no sign that his rivals, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, would drop out soon and no sign of peace among the party's divided factions.

"Democrats who once thought their race would wrap up early instead face a potentially long duel between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, with votes divided not by ideology but, in many states, by race and ethnic group."

NYT: "The Republican and Democratic presidential contests began diverging Tuesday, leaving the Democrats facing a long and potentially divisive nomination battle and the Republicans closer to an opportunity to put aside deep internal divisions and rally around a nominee.

"On the Democratic side, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama seem likely to continue their state-by-state struggle, after a night of tit-for-tat division of states and delegates, though Mrs. Clinton claimed the formidable prize of California.

"But after months of disarray, Republicans seemed closer to coalescing around Senator John McCain of Arizona. As Mr. McCain logged victories in populous states, including California, and added more delegates to his count, he moved nearer his goal of wrapping up his competition with Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. A third Republican candidate, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, underlined Mr. Romney's weakness by posting a series of victories, in a performance that highlighted the discomfort social conservatives have with the field."

Boston Globe: "Get ready for weeks -- if not months -- of a tightly fought Democratic presidential race, while last night's big winner on the GOP side, John McCain, could soon be sitting on the sidelines, secure in victory, trying hard to raise money and pull together a fractious Republican coalition.

"So far, the Democrats have dramatically outdrawn the Republicans at the polls and generated greater enthusiasm among their core constituencies, especially among women, minorities, and younger voters. A fierce, protracted contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could sour the good feelings -- or energize the party even more, depending on how the candidates conduct themselves."

Chicago Tribune: "In the face of Obama's apparent surge in recent weeks, however, Clinton's claim to the coastal anchors of the Super Tuesday contest -- California and New York -- will add new impetus to her campaign heading into the primary elections still to come."

USA Today: "McCain's victory celebration was tempered a bit by warning signs that he has yet to win over Republican partisans and the party's most conservative voters -- many of whom remain suspicious of his maverick past on such issues as taxes and immigration. And he could face a bitter endgame with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney as conservative critics scramble to deny the Arizona senator the presidential nomination."

Politico: "By winning critical contested strongholds in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and -- most important -- California, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York showed big-state muscle and remained the putative leader. Decisive red-state victories in Oklahoma and Tennessee bolstered her assertions of electability. But Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois proved the breadth of his national appeal and national organization in winning six more primaries and caucuses than his rival."

Salon's Walter Shapiro: "Never before in the long history of presidential politics have so many voters in so many states gone to the polls and their caucus sites on the same day -- and decided so little. Instead of wrapping things up, the delegate contests in 24 states gave certainty a bad rap.

"As Tuesday night flowed into Wednesday morning, the Democratic race once again lacked a coherent story line. The surging Barack Obama movement, fueled all week by the Kennedy family endorsements, reached its temporary limits. Hillary Clinton -- who seemed just 48 hours ago to be on the wrong side of history -- managed to hold on to enough primary states (from Massachusetts to California) with her coalition of lower-income white women, white Catholics (particularly in the Northeast) and Latinos from coast to coast.

"On the Republican side, John McCain stumbled to the cusp of the nomination -- aided by a Mike Huckabee resurgence in the South at the expense of Mitt Romney . . . While McCain still arouses intense conservative opposition and has yet to prove that he can win in traditional GOP climes, he does seem poised to be bathed in the spotlight underneath the balloon drop at the Republican National Convention."

Andrew Sullivan: "The biggest news: I'd say it's Huckabee's astonishing resilience, with so few dollars and so little organization. The Bush-Rove party is a disproportionately religious organization and the pastor cannot be denied. The GOP's natural ticket is obviously McCain-Huckabee. It makes a lot of sense for the logic of today's religiously-based, war-motivated Republicanism. It's also a huge reminder that the so-called leaders of the conservative movement -- Limbaugh, Hewitt, Dobson, Levin, et al -- are very scantily clad emperors. Their bluff has been called. And it couldn't happen to a nicer crowd.

"On the Democratic side, the bottom line is that this is now a dead heat. Given Clinton's massive lead only a couple of weeks ago, that's a huge Obama gain."

Here's how it looked to me last night, in real time, as I channel-surfed away:

Clinton piled up victories early, getting little credit from the networks before Obama began catching up later in the evening. The results were more lopsided on the Republican side, with McCain winning a half-dozen states. But the anchors would not describe Super Tuesday as a big day for McCain. That, apparently, was not in the script.

There was a clear bias at the outset, in favor of Eastern time zones. The earliest results get the biggest play in prime time. That's how Huckabee became the early victor, by taking the West Virginia caucuses, which finished in mid-afternoon--enabling the former Baptist minister to assure Wolf Blitzer soon after 6 p.m. that he still believed in miracles. Who knew West Virginia was so important? But for several hours, it was all the networks had.

At 7 p.m., the cable nets wasted not a nanosecond, with CNN, Fox and MSNBC all calling Barack Obama the winner in Georgia. Obama had been expected to carry the state and its 16 delegates, so no one went overboard, but in football terms it put the Illinois senator on the board. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann raised a wire report that Obama had won Georgia on a "wave of black votes" -- the implication being that he would fare less well in states with smaller African American populations. CNN's Bill Schneider noted that Obama did, according to exit polls, take 39 percent of the white vote there.

At 7:31, A.B. Stoddard of the Hill became the first pundit to crawl out on a limb, telling Fox's Bill O'Reilly that Obama was looking strong. "I do think he's going to win the day . . . I think he actually might get California," she said. Stoddard was also bullish on McCain: "I would probably put my money on him wrapping it up tonight."

On MSNBC, ex-presidential candidate Pat Buchanan said Bill Clinton would be blamed for his wife's Georgia loss. And Washington Post columnist Gene Robinson said, "This evening will end up being a repudiation of Bill Clinton."

The MS consensus: a good night for Huckabee. He was leading McCain in Georgia by three votes-- with 2 percent of the precincts in.

The first wave of 8 p.m. projections contained good news for McCain: New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois were all put in his column, with Mitt Romney grabbing only his home state of Massachusetts. (If he lost there, he might as well have started a hedge fund.) The networks had to settle for a split on the Democratic side: Oklahoma for Hillary Clinton, Illinois for the home-state guy, Obama.

Huckabee, meanwhile, was getting good buzz on Fox. "Remember all those times I said Mike Huckabee was dead? He's not dead yet," Fred Barnes said. "Huckabee has a hard time dying," MSNBC's Chris Matthews said, sticking with the resurrection metaphor and even asking a senator whether Huckabee should be McCain's running mate. (Hmm . . . Hadn't you gotten the impression from the media that we were down to a McCain-Romney showdown and Huckabee was a mere gadfly?)

Fox also explored the possibility of a McCain-Huckabee ticket. "That's called doubling your trouble," declared Fox's newest pundit, Karl Rove, saying it wouldn't satisfy the likes of Rush Limbaugh. Laura Ingraham said that even though McCain is "stubborn," it would make sense for him to pick her candidate, Romney.

"A lot of Republicans I've talked to are basically depressed about the race," Bill Kristol observed.

Despite McCain's early wins, ABC's Charlie Gibson asked: "Can he get conservatives enthusiastic about a McCain candidacy?" George Stephanopoulos said McCain benefited from Huckabee and Romney splitting the conservative vote.

No one seemed to care very much that Hillary won Tennessee. No one seemed to care that Hillary won Massachusetts. ("That was one she should have won," Matthews said.) Hey! What about the Ted Kennedy endorsement, treated by the media as making Obama the crown prince of Camelot? Not to mention that Gov. Deval Patrick was backing Obama. Haven't I said again and again that endorsements are overrated? Journalists love them, and most voters don't care.

"If the Kennedy endorsement doesn't work in Massachusetts," asked CBS's Bob Schieffer, "where does it work?"

In the same vein, no one seemed very excited that McCain won Delaware, his fourth state of the night, or Illinois, his fifth state, while Romney was being shut out everywhere except Massachusetts. There was more chatter about Huckabee winning Alabama along with his home state of Arkansas.

On newspaper Web sites, the early victories for Clinton and McCain were the lead story. But not on TV, where a pattern was emerging: Winning a state you were expected to win means bupkis. Only a surprise showing gets the pundits excited.

At 9:15, when ABC called New Jersey for Hillary -- Fox had projected the win minutes earlier -- Stephanopoulos said she had "hit a goal tonight" by winning that state, Massachusetts and New York. "Had she lost, it would have been a huge disappointment."

What was striking about the comment was that Hillary was having a big night at that point, but no one was saying so. Maybe it was an inherent sense of caution. Maybe it was that some big states hadn't been called. And maybe there is just a lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton. Around 9:30, Obama got back in the W column with projected wins in Alabama and Kansas. Katie Couric attributed the latter victory to the backing of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, but Jeff Greenfield noted that Obama's mother grew up there.

The first recognition I saw of what was happening, around 9:45, came when Fox's Juan Williams offered this qualified appraisal: "The perception is that Hillary Clinton is the winner tonight."

But perhaps winning states isn't the name of the game, with the Dems' complicated proportional-representation rules. Tim Russert guessed on NBC that Obama and Clinton would finish "within 100 delegates of each other." And Diane Sawyer walked over to her political director to make sure her figures were right: Obama and Clinton each winning 3.2 million votes at that point. Of course, as Al Gore knows, what matters is where those votes are.

Around the same time, MSNBC was awarding New York to McCain. Here, too, no one was getting excited about the Arizonan picking off one state after another. Matthews called him "the Metroliner candidate," since he was winning in the Northeast corridor. "McCain is not closing the sale," Buchanan said. Joe Scarborough dismissed him as a "regional candidate."

What does that make Romney? At 10 p.m. he won heavily Mormon Utah, his other home state. Utah and Massachusetts. Not a great night so far.

And yet all night long, the talk has been about whether McCain could win over disgruntled conservatives. It was almost as if the pundits were following an old script, about talk radio's disaffection with McCain, while the numbers kept rolling in: wins in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois and, just after 10, Oklahoma.

Things began to pick up for Obama after 10, when the networks awarded him Connecticut and North Dakota, matching Hillary with six state wins. Couric pronounced Connecticut a "disappointing" loss for Clinton. And at almost 11, while Hillary was speaking, MSNBC put up a graphic awarding Minnesota to Obama.

Succumbing to the journalistic impulse to always look ahead, Couric asked whether Huckabee could be McCain's running mate. Schieffer said maybe but all but nominated Colin Powell. Greenfield said the pro-choice Powell wouldn't fly with the right.

Huckabee's star shined brighter when MSNBC called him the winner in Georgia. He was racking up wins in the South despite getting just a fraction of the coverage lavished on the McCain-Romney spitball fight in recent weeks.

"The Republican race is now a three-man race," Lou Dobbs announced on CNN, although few other analysts were touting Huckabee as a threat to win the nomination.

Romney managed to take Minnesota, according to a CNN projection at 11:10. But there was a growing feeling that Romney had been "really neutralized, really harmed," as Barnes put it on Fox. Meaning that McCain had done far better than the networks had been saying for hours.

Finally, at 12:15 a.m., MSNBC and Fox called California for Hillary, and MSNBC awarded it (and Missouri) to McCain. The tenor of the coverage began to change, but half the country was asleep.

Limbaugh Watch

Rush Limbaugh denounced John McCain yesterday over a letter written on his behalf by Bob Dole, accusing McCain's presidential campaign of "a dirty little trick."

"Senator McCain, I think what you are doing here is disgraceful," Limbaugh said shortly after noon on his nationally syndicated radio show.

In a letter to the talk show host Monday, released by the McCain camp, Dole wrote: "I know that you have serious reservations about Senator McCain. McCain is a friend and I proudly wore his P.O.W. bracelet bearing his name while he was still a guest at the 'Hanoi Hilton.' " The former Senate majority leader and 1996 GOP presidential nominee wrote that McCain was a mainstream conservative on numerous issues and that "whoever wins the Republican nomination will need your enthusiastic support. Two terms for the Clintons are enough."

The Dole note intensified the sparring between the Arizona senator and his chief rival. Mitt Romney said yesterday morning on "Fox and Friends": "It's probably the last person I would have wanted write a letter for me . . . I think there's a lot of folks who tend to think that maybe John McCain's race is a bit like Bob Dole's race."

McCain responded on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" by accusing the former Massachusetts governor of the "disgraceful" slandering a World War II hero and demanding that he apologize to Dole.

On the radio show, Limbaugh accused McCain of "manipulating" Dole: "Senator McCain is resorting to the same kind of politics as Hillary Clinton." Criticizing a headline that "Dole Scolds Limbaugh," the conservative commentator noted the friendly tone of the letter and said: "This shows how willing the media are to be manipulated by Senator McCain."

Limbaugh accused the McCain campaign of leaking a private letter. But Dole made clear, in an appearance on "Hannity & Colmes" Monday night, that he expected the note to Limbaugh to be made public.

By the way, Rush clarified a comment he made to me that has gotten a lot of pickup: "If I believe the country will suffer with either Hillary, Obama or McCain, I would just as soon the Democrats take the hit . . . rather than a Republican causing the debacle." Limbaugh said the key word was "if," meaning he would decide by the fall campaign whether to abandon the GOP ticket if McCain is the nominee.

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