Mitt Romney is a smart and talented man who has run a vigorous campaign based mostly on conservative issues. He vows to keep fighting all the way to the convention. But he took third place in several Southern states on Super Tuesday, a dismal showing for someone attempting to rally conservatives. He has our support. But it is now up to him to identify a plausible path to the nomination.
Sen. John McCain’s amazing comeback is a testament to the power of perseverance, conviction, and luck. It has been good to see his strength on Iraq rewarded. For the Republican nomination to be worth his having, however, he needs to consolidate his support on the Right — ideally, before the fall.
Doing that will require ignoring some of the spin coming from his allies on immigration. They say that McCain’s victories prove that opposition to amnesty is a losing issue. Actually, the anti-amnesty candidates — including Mike Huckabee, who has been running as a deportationist — have gotten majorities in most states. Even in Florida, where strong Hispanic support gave McCain a decisive win, the anti-amnesty candidates got nearly half the vote. McCain’s success proves that Republican politicians can survive supporting amnesty if they have compensating strengths. It does not prove that the issue helped him. As Ramesh Ponnuru writes in the upcoming issue of National Review, conservatives cannot reasonably ask McCain to abandon his convictions on immigration. But they can ask him to say that he will defer any action on amnesty, or guest workers, until a few years after enforcement has been put into effect.
Immigration reform is the policy issue that gives conservatives the most concern about McCain. But they worry as much about his priorities as his policies, so he will not be able to win their support merely by listing all of the topics on which he agrees with them. Aside from his opposition to pork-barrel spending, there is no domestic conservative cause that McCain has taken up. We believe that a President McCain would prefer to appoint conservative judges, for example. But would he fight for them or cut a deal with Pat Leahy? That is the fear that underlies the complaints about McCain’s membership in the Gang of 14.
He has not always taken the lead even on national-security issues. Republicans in Washington want to extend and reform an intelligence-collection law, but Democrats are balking, threatening an interruption in operations. McCain’s voice would be helpful here, if he chose to use it.
McCain can win over most conservatives, but their support is not his by right. They will rally to him if he demonstrates that he believes that a broad range of conservative policies are among the things that are, to quote the title of one of his books, worth the fighting for.