Tampa, Fla. — At the very end, a big-state political campaign is a TV show, and tonight John McCain, in his final rally of the Florida campaign, hits his cue, taking the stage in a Tampa Convention Center ballroom at 6:01 P.M. — right on time for the local newscasts. Everything goes well: the opening music, the introductions — including brief remarks from McCain’s new best friend in Florida, governor Charlie Crist — the speech, the confetti blasters, the closing music. But unlike tonight’s other political show — the State of the Union address from Washington — McCain doesn’t try to cover every issue in the book. He doesn’t even try to cover a few key issues. Instead, as his Florida campaign ends, McCain pares his message down to the one reason he is running for president: to be commander-in-chief.
Others can talk all they want about the economy, can talk about changing Washington, but at the end of this day — a day that has involved running squabbles with opponent Mitt Romney and a simmering controversy over the issue of judicial nominations — McCain returns, as he always does, to national defense.
“I want to get right to the point,” he begins. “I’m running for president of the United States because I believe I can keep America safe.” In a TV-friendly speech that runs all of 9 minutes and 40 seconds, McCain touches all his stump-speech points: “My friends, we face the transcendent challenge of radical Islamic extremism that threatens everything we stand for and believe in…The central battleground in this struggle is Iraq… Please remember this, if you forget everything else I tell you: Al-Qaeda is on the run, but they are not defeated…We will never surrender; they will.”
It’s almost that fast; an election-eve speech is no time to ramble around or introduce new topics. But it’s striking to see just how much McCain ignores the trend of the campaign — the shift to economic issues — and sticks to the same message he has been delivering for a long, long time. He’s betting that in the end Republican voters, not just here in Florida but across the nation, will make their choice on a gut-level feeling that the world is just not safe enough to elect anyone else.
But the fights of the day have been about other things. In the morning, Romney accuses McCain of being more like a liberal Democrat than a Republican, the sponsor of the McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy, and McCain-Lieberman bills on campaign finance, immigration, and the environment. And then the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund reports that McCain once expressed reservations about the nomination of Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito. “Mr. McCain has told conservatives he would be happy to appoint the likes of Chief Justice John Roberts to the Supreme Court,” Fund writes. “But he indicated he might draw the line on a Samuel Alito, because ‘he wore his conservatism on his sleeve.’”
The comment causes a uproar in the conservative world, with a number of commentators pushing McCain for an explanation. After a rally in an airplane hanger at the Orlando airport, I briefly meet McCain in a small conference room and ask him about the story. “Let me just look you in the eye,” McCain tells me. “I’ve said a thousand times on this campaign trail, I’ve said as often as I can, that I want to find clones of Alito and Roberts. I worked as hard as anybody to get them confirmed. I look you in the eye and tell you I’ve said a thousand times that I wanted Alito and Roberts. I have told anybody who will listen. I flat-out tell you I will have people as close to Roberts and Alito [as possible], and I am proud of my record of working to get them confirmed, and people who worked to get them confirmed will tell you how hard I worked.”
The Alito flap is just another flare-up in McCain’s troubled — that’s putting it charitably — relationship with some parts of the conservative base. Romney is giving voice to their concerns, which are also being heard all over talk radio. McCain’s opponents have legitimate grievances against him, yet his supporters are solid Republicans, too, and the collision of candidates is causing some raw feelings. That becomes clear when I talk to Lew Oliver, the longtime chairman of the Orange County Republican party, and ask what he thinks of the sometimes intense opposition to McCain among conservatives.
“I think they don’t like him personally,” Oliver tells me. “I think it’s a personal vendetta. I think that he hasn’t paid enough attention to some of the conservative radio-talk-show hosts.” Warming to the subject, Oliver brings up some of McCain’s better-known antagonists. “John McCain campaigned for Rick Santorum over and over again, and Santorum can’t drive that knife deeply enough into McCain’s back,” Oliver says. “This is typical of the hard Right. It’s what they do. They don’t understand how to win elections, because Rush Limbaugh isn’t interested in electing a president. These people don’t care. They’re interested in listenership; it’s not the same thing.”
Others at the rally agree, but in less passionate terms. They don’t listen much to talk radio, they tell me, and they admire McCain as a war hero and a wartime leader. For them — many are veterans — that’s the most important thing of all.
If you put together the day’s arguments and the final speech in Tampa, you get a pretty good picture of the McCain campaign and its place in the struggle going on within the Republican party as the Florida campaign comes to an end and the Super Tuesday primaries approach. The conflict between McCain’s opponents and his supporters is one of those situations where it’s hard to see one side convincing the other of the superiority of its case or its candidate. In the end, somebody will just have to win.