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.
But the reception McCain received yesterday at the annual conservative conference, where he was booed loudly when introduced, pointed to the fractured coalition that he must reunite before what is expected to be a challenging fall campaign.
"I am acutely aware that I cannot succeed in that endeavor, nor can our party prevail over the challenge we will face from either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, without the support of dedicated conservatives, whose convictions, creativity and energy have been indispensable to the success our party has had over the last quarter-century," he said.
Romney announced his decision at the end of his appearance at CPAC and hours before McCain spoke. His speech sounded like a conservative call to arms by a candidate still engaged in a battle for the nomination, but he explained his decision as one influenced by the fact that the country is at war.
"I disagree with Senator McCain on a number of issues, as you know," he said. "But I agree with him on doing whatever it takes to be successful in Iraq, on finding and executing Osama bin Laden, and on eliminating al-Qaeda and terror. If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror."
Aides said Romney made the decision after he was presented Wednesday with an analysis of what it would take for him to beat McCain. Once it was apparent that there was virtually no way to win and that the long-term cost to the party of a drawn-out nomination contest could be significant, the former business executive and management consultant decided to withdraw.
Romney praised McCain in the speech but did not endorse him. An adviser said he has no plans to offer a formal endorsement, to preserve a role for his supporters in shaping the party platform at the Republican National Convention this summer.
Two Republicans are still running against McCain -- former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) -- but neither has a plausible chance of winning the nomination.
McCain continued working to consolidate the party yesterday. Former senator George Allen (Va.), who had backed former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) in the Republican race, appeared at CPAC to announce his support for McCain.
"We are at war, and the preeminent role of the president is commander in chief and in my judgment the best person to be president of the United States . . . is John McCain," he said. Other GOP senators who have clashed with McCain in the past, including John Cornyn (Tex.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), got behind his bid as well.
But former House majority leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) underscored the resistance among conservatives when he said yesterday that he does not know whether he would vote for McCain against Clinton. "I'm going to be pushing the conservative cause, and let's see what John McCain does reaching out to conservatives," he told MSNBC's "Hardball." "If he continues down to be the same old John McCain that used to have disdain for the conservatives, then I'm not sure who's the most dangerous to be in the White House."
Before McCain arrived at a hotel ballroom in Washington for his speech yesterday, other speakers admonished the audience to give him a polite reception as the new leader of the party. But twice when he was introduced, many in the audience booed him at length. Others cheered and waved McCain placards in an effort to drown them out.
McCain freely acknowledged his differences with many GOP conservatives, but he made a stout defense of his 22-year record in the Senate as one that has been true to mainstream conservative principles.
"I believe today -- as I believed 25 years ago -- in small government; fiscal discipline; low taxes; a strong defense; judges who enforce, and not make, our laws; the social values that are the true source of our strength; and, generally, the steadfast defense of our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which I have defended my entire career as God-given to the born and unborn."
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.