Six states have voted in the Republican nomination contest, and the field has merely been winnowed. Former senator Fred Thompson dropped out, having run an honorable campaign but also shown his distaste for presidential politics. We were always skeptical of former governor Mike Huckabee’s chances, but it took his loss in South Carolina to make nearly everyone share that skepticism.
It is now a two-and-a-half-man race. Sen. John McCain has a lead in national polls and has won two contested primaries. Former governor Mitt Romney has the most delegates, the most popular votes, and the most money. On the sidelines is former mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He is running fourth in the national polls and has only one delegate.
If Giuliani wins the next big contest, the Florida primary, he could revive his campaign and do well on Super Tuesday. (Beating McCain, while losing to Romney, might also keep his candidacy alive.) His tactics are being second-guessed, but those tactics were the inevitable result of his fundamental political flaw. He could not compete in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina because he is not a good fit for the Republican party nationally.
McCain’s supporters are telling one another that his victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina prove that he can ignore and isolate conservative opinion leaders such as Rush Limbaugh. That’s what they said when he won primaries in 2000, too, and McCain paid dearly for listening to them. Our guess is that the voters who are leaving Huckabee and Thompson will go disproportionately to Romney. McCain has yet to win a plurality of self-identified conservatives anywhere.
McCain will never win over all conservatives, even if he gets the nomination. But he can reassure conservatives if he pledges to name a conservative running mate and identifies respected conservative legal figures to whom he will turn when nominating judges. He can promise to approach immigration reform piecemeal rather than comprehensively. He should say that strong evidence that the illegal-immigrant population is shrinking will have to arrive before he legalizes any large segment of that population. And he can acknowledge that scientific advances have weakened the case for federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research.
Governor Romney’s chances have been discounted because he left South Carolina before its primary. But his choice may have been shrewd, or at least may have reflected an accurate understanding of the race. By not doing everything in his power to stop McCain from winning South Carolina, he increased the likelihood that McCain would get the flattering media attention we call “momentum.” But it has become clearer and clearer in recent weeks that the outcome of this race is more likely to be determined by who won the most delegates than by who won pivotal states. As the most conservative viable candidate, Romney is still in a good position to win that contest.