By Glenn Kessler and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
COLUMBUS, Ohio, Feb. 19 -- A triumphant Sen. John McCain claimed the Republican presidential nomination as his own Tuesday night after easily winning the Wisconsin primary, for the first time acknowledging his success at besting a crowded, fractured field of GOP hopefuls.
McCain slogged through 18 inches of snow in 3-degree Wisconsin weather in the morning. But as the votes were being counted, the senator from Arizona was already celebrating in Ohio his victory over former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Ohio will join Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island in holding primaries in two weeks.
"With confidence and humility . . . I will be our party's nominee for president of the United States," McCain declared to his supporters, promising to "wage a campaign with determination, passion and the right ideas for strengthening our country."
He immediately turned his fire on Democrats, and particularly Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), dismissing what he said was an "eloquent but empty call for change that promises no more than a holiday from history and a return to the false promises and failed policies of a tired philosophy that trusts in government more than people."
McCain's win signaled a coalescing of a Republican electorate that has struggled for a year to find a candidate it likes. He posted one of his best showings among GOP voters, beating Huckabee by 22 points. McCain won among women, men, independents, those who are college-educated and those who are not, according to early exit polls.
Conservative voters split about evenly, a stark improvement for McCain, who has struggled to counter Huckabee's appeal among evangelicals and other GOP base voters. Huckabee still appeared to be winning among those who said they are "very conservative," but seven in 10 of those voters said they will be satisfied if McCain is the nominee.
Huckabee also continued to lead McCain among voters who said they want someone who shares their values. But McCain easily topped Huckabee among those who chose the economy, the war in Iraq or terrorism as the most critical issues facing the country.
Before Tuesday's voting, McCain had 908 delegates to the party's national convention, and Huckabee had 245. A total of 1,191 is needed to clinch the nomination. There were 40 delegates at stake in Wisconsin and 16 in a second round of primary voting in the state of Washington, which held GOP caucuses on Feb. 9. Results in Washington were unavailable.
Huckabee urged Wisconsin voters to give conservatives a voice by helping him defeat McCain. "If you're going to vote for me, I don't care if it snows another three feet -- please go vote," he told supporters.
Meanwhile, Huckabee's campaign manager was gleefully proclaiming the possibility that the former governor could force an all-out fight at the Republican National Convention this summer. "It'd be great fun," Ed Rollins said on CNN.
Rollins said in an interview that Huckabee is staying in the race out of an obligation to voters and because he believes in following the rules that have been laid out.
The veteran campaign strategist compared Huckabee's long-shot bid to Ronald Reagan's attempts to defeat incumbent Gerald R. Ford in 1976. Reagan lost that effort, but it paved the way for his conservative revolution four years later.
"We're in this game for the long term," said Rollins, who was director of Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign.
McCain will spend much of the next three days in Ohio, though he will also attend fundraising events in Illinois, Michigan and Indiana. Speaking to reporters after he flew to Ohio's capital Tuesday afternoon, McCain acknowledged that he still needs to energize a Republican electorate that in recent years has been dismayed by GOP missteps.
"Our base was dispirited by the spending and corruption," McCain said.
He also sought to explain what has become one of the Democrats' favorite attack lines -- his statement that U.S. troops might need to stay in Iraq for 100 years. He said that he was referring to what he called "an American presence" after Iraqis take over military responsibilities, much like the presence of U.S. troops in Germany and Japan more than 60 years after World War II.
McCain made the same point when, during a January event in New Hampshire, he said that having U.S. troops in Iraq for 100 years "would be fine with me."
Shear reported from Washington.