The Magazine

McCain and the Conservatives

Can't they just get along?

Apr 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 29 • By FRED BARNES
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Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, took time out from his speech to the Leadership Program of the Rockies on February 24 to conduct a straw poll. His audience, assembled at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, consisted of 300 conservatives, the elite of the state's Republican party. Luntz wanted to know whom they favored in the Republican presidential race. "I do this with every crowd I talk to," he says. "As a pollster, I'm the only person who can get away with it."

Luntz asked for a show of hands. Rudy Giuliani got nearly a quarter of the crowd and came in first. Mitt Romney wasn't far behind. Newt Gingrich isn't a candidate, at least not yet, but he finished a solid third. When Luntz asked who supported John McCain, it appeared at floor level that no hands went up. The crowd gasped. "They were shocked at how badly McCain did," Luntz says. And it indeed was bad, but not quite that bad. From the podium, Luntz could see McCain hadn't been shut out. He got three votes.

That was nearly six weeks ago, at what was so far the lowest point in McCain's second bid for the presidency. His first bid, in 2000, ended bitterly. But since the Republican party tends toward a practice of primogeniture in choosing presidential nominees--that is, picking the most senior guy in line--McCain started the campaign for the 2008 nomination as the frontrunner.

Then Giuliani entered the race, running as "America's mayor." McCain faltered, falling into second place, far behind Giuliani in several polls. How come? It turns out McCain's problem is the same one he had in 2000: conservatives. They're willing to give Giuliani enormous slack, despite his liberalism on social issues and his disheveled personal life. They excuse Romney's numerous switches from liberal to conservative positions. But conservatives vigorously resist McCain. They make no allowance for his liberal digressions on issues such as campaign finance, gun control, stem cell research, President Bush's tax cuts, or global warming. And they give him little or no credit for favoring the reversal of Roe v. Wade, or for supporting the extension of the Bush tax cuts he had originally voted against, or even for his unblemished record as a hawk on national security. Yes, politics is unfair.

And so we have a major anomaly in the Republican presidential campaign: The candidate with the most conservative record of the top contenders is the least liked by conservatives. The aversion to McCain is often visceral. James Dobson, the Christian conservative who runs Focus on the Family, says he prayed about the Republican presidential campaign and concluded that he couldn't vote for McCain "under any circumstances."

McCain's greatest need at the moment is to be one of them, or at least to be viewed by conservatives as an ally on most issues rather than as a thorn in their side. There's a simple reason for this. Without substantial conservative support, McCain can't win the nomination. That makes his task clear, though hardly easy. And he appears committed to pursuing conservative supporters in a way he didn't in 2000. Back then the key primaries he won were New Hampshire and Michigan's, both open to independent voters. Now he's got to win in the closed primaries limited to Republican voters. That means primaries dominated by conservatives.

My guess is McCain can do it. He's already bounced back from the nadir of his candidacy. Contrary to some of the buzz in the political community, his campaign hasn't collapsed, cratered, or come apart. Polls aren't worth much this far ahead of the actual voting, which won't start until next January. Still, his gains in recent Gallup and Time polls match the feeling of McCain's advisers that he's on the road to recovery. In 2000, he had "a bus and a style," says his adviser Mark Salter. Now he has a bus, a style, and a national organization.

Thus the promise of the McCain candidacy remains alive. That promise has nothing to do with the media fiction about a rebel, a political eccentric, an independent Republican who delights in taking shots at conservatives, winding up in the White House. The promise, as McCain's pal Lindsey Graham says, is that Republicans nominate the candidate with the best combination of "conservatism and electability" to win the general election in November 2008. That's McCain. He's "right of center, but still in touch with the center," just where a Republican presidential candidate should be.