By Michael D. Shear and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Sen. John McCain clinched the Republican presidential nomination last night, and immediately castigated his potential Democratic rivals as liberals who lack the experience and wisdom to lead a country facing economic distress at home and engaged in war abroad.
The senator from Arizona easily won primaries in Texas and three other states, becoming the new face of the Republican Party and, at last, capturing the prize that had eluded him for a decade. The victories ended one of the great tests of political endurance for a man whose personal mettle was forged by five years in a North Vietnamese prison.
His political ambitions were dashed in 2000 by George W. Bush and again seemed to end last summer amid staff infighting and financial chaos. But McCain soldiered on, emerging last night as the far-from-universal choice of a fractured Republican Party. His remaining rival, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, captured about a third of the vote in Texas, signaling the frustrations that conservatives still feel about McCain.
By night's end, though, Huckabee had dropped out. The White House announced that McCain would receive President Bush's endorsement after a lunch intended to cement the senator as the political heir of his former rival.
Campaigning in Texas yesterday, McCain told reporters that he will "await the outcome" on the Democratic side. But in his victory speech at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas, he made it clear that he will begin immediately to make his case that the country cannot afford to have either Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama as president.
"I will leave it to my opponent to argue that we should abrogate trade treaties, and pretend the global economy will go away and Americans can secure our future by trading and investing only among ourselves," he said to a screaming crowd. "I will leave it to my opponent to propose returning to the failed, big-government mandates of the '60s and '70s to address problems such as the lack of health-care insurance for some Americans."
McCain added enough delegates last night to take him over the 1,191 he will need at the party's national convention in September. Huckabee conceded after the polls closed, saying he called McCain to congratulate him for an "honorable" campaign and pledging "to do everything possible to unite our party, but more importantly to unite our country."
Standing in front of a banner with the number "1,191" on it and flanked by two large American flags, McCain vowed that his campaign "will be more than another tired debate of false promises, empty sound bites, or useless arguments from the past." He focused much of his speech on terrorism and the Iraq war.
"America is at war in two countries and involved in a long and difficult fight with violent extremists who despise us, our values and modernity itself," he said. "It is of little use to Americans for their candidates to avoid the many complex challenges of these struggles by re-litigating decisions of the past."
Those who cast ballots in Texas and Ohio, the two biggest contests, overwhelmingly supported McCain. He won easily among independents, Republicans, men and women, and those of all ages.
But several groups of voters continued to express their dislike of McCain. Evangelicals and Texans who call themselves "very conservative" voted for Huckabee in greater numbers. The senator also lost among people who said their top issue was making sure the candidate shared their values.
Looking toward the long march to November, McCain acknowledged that he will need to raise more money and find a way to pull together a Republican Party whose splits have been revealed in the primaries, with the underfunded Huckabee winning a string of unlikely victories.
"We have a lot of work to do to unite our party and to energize it," said McCain, who will head to Palm Beach, Fla., to begin a swing dominated by intensive fundraising.
Charles Black, his top political fundraiser, said a priority will be to meet with officials at the Republican National Committee to mobilize the national and state parties, which will be critical to the general election.
Now that he has become the de facto head of the GOP, McCain will essentially take over the committee's operations, turning its research, get-out-the-vote efforts and communications into an arm of his campaign.
Looking toward November, McCain has so far aimed much of his criticism at Obama, whose performance leading up to last night's primaries appeared to make him the likely nominee. But the tight races in those Democratic contests made it clear that McCain and the Republicans must be ready to face Clinton, too.
Top McCain strategists believe the ongoing fight between Obama and Clinton will give them time to raise money, develop their strategy and define their candidate to a national audience before a full assault by Democrats. McCain has already begun to paint both potential rivals as dangerous liberals.
"Either candidate, either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, we will have stark differences. They are liberal Democrats. I am a conservative Republican," he told an audience in Texas.
During the day, McCain talked about the themes he hopes will drive the fall campaign. Mentioning the economy briefly and defending free trade, he quickly moved on to national security, the issue he considers his greatest strength against the eventual Democratic nominee.
Three times, he referred to "transcendent radical Islamic extremism."
But in his speech last night, he also sought to reach out, thanking "independent-thinking Democrats" and pledging a campaign that does not descend into "an uncivil brawl over the spoils of power."
"The contest begins tonight," he said, promising to seek "a government that is as capable, wise, brave and decent as the great people we serve."
Slevin reported from the McCain campaign in Texas.