The Decisive Winner, by a Nose

Voters in Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C. cast their ballots in one of the most closely contested presidential races ever on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2008.
By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hold your nose.

As the modest crowd filed into a Holiday Inn ballroom in Alexandria last night for John McCain's Virginia victory celebration, they were greeted by a pungent, fishy smell.

Was the presumptive Republican presidential nominee taking literally the claim by his 95-year-old mother that conservatives would vote for her son "holding their nose"?

Actually, no. It was a takeout delivery of Thai curries for the Fox News crew. "Scallops and shrimp," reported correspondent Carl Cameron.

In a broader sense, there was a whole lot of nose-holding across the Commonwealth yesterday as McCain made off with much less of a victory than expected. The relatively tight race in Virginia, and widespread rejection of McCain in rural Virginia, told the larger story of McCain's effort to cement his all-but-official claim on the GOP nomination: Though the conservative establishment is slowly reaching for the nose clips, the McCain scent has proved stubborn and noxious.

Former senator George Allen, circulating outside the ballroom as the Virginia returns came in, blamed the nasty weather for McCain's showing before lending the evening one of his signature football cliches: "A win by a field goal is a win."

Well, yes. But McCain clearly didn't beat the spread, even though he was playing against an unranked opponent, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who has no hope of winning the title. And this means grass-roots conservatives weren't following the plays called by Allen and other conservative leaders on the sidelines.

When McCain took the stage, he moved quickly to acknowledge the "passionate supporters" of Huckabee's conservative rebellion. "I've got to say: He certainly keeps things interesting -- maybe a little too interesting at times tonight, I must confess," the likely nominee said.

But in a victory speech that quickly turned into a rebuttal of Democrat Barack Obama's candidacy, the ever-defiant McCain made clear he would not be bullied by the right. "I will make my case to every American who will listen," he said. "I will not confine myself to the comfort of speaking only to those who agree with me."

The party in Old Town -- a questionable location for a 71-year-old candidate trying to dispel the notion that he's too old -- was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., but an hour after polls closed, at 8 p.m., only about 80 people were spread throughout the ballroom, watching a neck-and-neck race unfold on screens showing election returns on CNN.

The crowd gradually swelled, and a cheer went up when the network projected just after 8:30 that McCain had won the state. But the applause died out within half a minute, and the voice of Wolf Blitzer could be heard above the crowd: "Mike Huckabee showing surprising strength. . . . John McCain will eke out this win."

The vote was undeniably a conservative protest against the candidate and the conservative leaders who lent McCain their grudging and half-hearted endorsements since the exit of Mitt Romney from the race last week. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who last month said "the thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine," this week endorsed McCain. So did Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who last month asked why conservatives "shouldn't be physically ill at the prospects of a President McCain."

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