Romney Out, McCain Looks Ahead

At an annual meeting of conservatives in Washington, D.C., Mitt Romney ends his campaign, and John McCain woos attendees. The Post's Dan Balz provides analysis. Video by Ed O'Keefe/
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 8, 2008

Sen. John McCain effectively sealed the Republican presidential nomination yesterday when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney abruptly left the race. The senator from Arizona immediately turned his attention to repairing relations with disgruntled conservatives and to opening the general election campaign with a sharp critique of his Democratic rivals.

McCain signaled a hard-fought fall campaign against either Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama based on conservative principles and built around his national security credentials and reputation as an opponent of wasteful government spending.

He presented his support for President Bush's troop increase in Iraq as a badge of honor and charged that his opponents would recklessly adopt a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from the conflict without regard for the "profound human calamity" and heightened danger to U.S. security that he said would ensue.

"Often elections in this country are fought within the margins of small differences," he said. "This one will not be. We are arguing about hugely consequential things. Whomever the Democrats nominate, they would govern this country in a way that will, in my opinion, take this country backward."

McCain was especially stern in his criticism of Clinton and Obama on national security, asserting that neither fully recognizes the threat of an Iran with nuclear ambitions and that both will concede to critics of the United States that the nation's actions in its own defense have helped stir Islamic radicalism.

Saying Clinton's and Obama's resolve to combat those threats "will be as flawed as their judgment" about what brought about the threats, he said, "I intend to defeat that threat by staying on offense and by marshaling every relevant agency of our government, and our allies, in the urgent necessity of defending the values, virtues and security of free people against those who despise all that is good about us."

Bush plans to give an implicit endorsement of McCain's conservative bona fides this morning as his onetime rival seeks to consolidate the party behind his candidacy. In a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Bush plans to say that the nominee of the party will be a strong conservative, according to excerpts released by the White House last night.

"We have had good debates and soon we will have a nominee who will carry the conservative banner into this election and beyond," Bush says in the excerpts, without mentioning McCain by name. "The stakes in November are high. Prosperity and peace are in the balance. So with confidence in our vision and faith in our values, let us go forward, fight for victory and keep the White House in 2008."

With McCain as the Republican nominee and Clinton or Obama the Democratic nominee, this election will be the first since 1960 in which a senator makes it to the White House. Since then, four senators have won their party's nominations but lost the election.

McCain will also run on a biography that has shown character and courage and a willingness to buck convention, and he initially matches up well against both Clinton and Obama, according to the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. He holds a statistically insignificant lead over Clinton and trails Obama by a similarly insignificant margin. The poll suggests that McCain will have solid support from the Republican Party while also appealing to critically important independent voters.

But he is running in a year in which energy and enthusiasm lie with the Democrats. His steadfast support for Bush's Iraq policies put him at odds with a majority of the country, and his own party has been demoralized since Democrats took over Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Beyond that is the question of whether a nominee who would be 72 when elected can effectively run as a change-oriented candidate in a year when many voters are seeking a new direction.

Romney's departure from the GOP race, triggered by a disappointing showing on Super Tuesday, was a storybook conclusion to a nomination battle that saw McCain go from putative front-runner to struggling long shot to party standard-bearer over the past year.

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