Politics & Policy

In Victory, McCain Speaks to His Critics

His message was less about winning than about the feud inside the GOP.

Phoenix, Ariz. – When he took the stage here at the Arizona Biltmore Tuesday night, John McCain didn’t know he had won California, or even Missouri. He hadn’t even been able to keep a close eye on the other returns coming in from across the country; less than an hour before appearing at the Biltmore, McCain was attending a fundraiser at a home in Phoenix, proving that there is no time, not even Super Tuesday, when a candidate not named Romney is free from the pressure to raise money. As McCain prospected for cash, his top aides were locked in a room at the Biltmore, writing his speech while the crowd waiting downstairs grew a little restless.

Had McCain known he would win the nation’s biggest state, his victory speech might have been a bit more about, well, victory. As it was, it had no chest thumping and no ringing declarations — and the result wasn’t quite as stirring as Team McCain had hoped.

But McCain’s Super Tuesday speech wasn’t really about Super Tuesday. The heart of it wasn’t about his wins in New York and California and Missouri and Illinois and New Jersey and Arizona and Connecticut and Oklahoma and Delaware. Rather, it was a message to those conservatives who are currently waging open war on McCain, arguing that he will never be acceptable to the base of the Republican party. McCain did not speak to them directly — he’ll do that Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington — but tonight, there was no mistaking the meaning of his words. “I promise you, if I am so fortunate to win your nomination,” McCain told the crowd, “I will work hard to ensure that the conservative philosophy and principles of our great party…will again win the votes of a majority of the American people.”

What followed was a presentation of McCain’s bona fides. “I am a Republican because, like you, I want to relieve the American people of the heavy hand of a government,” he said. “I am a Republican because, like you, I believe government must defend our nation’s security wisely and effectively…I am a Republican because I believe, like you, that government should tax us no more than necessary, spend no more than necessary… I am a Republican because I believe the judges we appoint to the federal bench must understand that enforcing our laws, not making them, is their only responsibility…”

After McCain’s speech, I ran into Mark Salter, the senator’s closest adviser, and asked whether those passages were designed to reach out to McCain’s critics. “Yes,” Salter nodded, looking more than a little frustrated by the beating McCain has taken recently. “I mean, we’ve got a candidate who — I can’t say inarguably, since so many people are arguing about it — but who is, I think, by far the most conservative candidate in this race. He’s a defense hawk, a fiscal hawk, a pretty low tax guy, pro-life, free trader — and he’ll defend all those positions, and he’ll do it effectively in a style of campaigning that attracts the support of independents and Democrats as well. That’s a good thing.”

But that McCain is also the McCain of McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy, and McCain-Lieberman. And McCain knows that some of the critics will likely never make peace with him. The only way McCain can win them over — some of them, at least — is by winning. “I think that when it’s clear who the nominee is going to be, the conservative wing of the party will come together,” North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who is traveling with McCain, told me earlier in the day. “And I think John will reach out to them.”

Most of the people at the Biltmore are long-time McCain supporters from Arizona. But it’s a big hotel, and on Super Tuesday it was also hosting a meeting of the Defense Research Institute, which sounds like something out of the Pentagon but is instead a professional organization of defense lawyers. Frank Lococo and Raymond Jamieson, lawyers from Milwaukee attending the DRI gathering, decided the McCain rally was a bit more interesting and came over to see the candidate. They told me they’re both long-time subscribers to National Review, habitual readers of NRO, and, in Jamieson’s case, the proud owner of three books signed by William F. Buckley.

I asked what they thought about McCain. They’re both supporters, but it’s fair to say they’re not under any illusions. “I will tell you that on things like taxes and immigration, his positions drive me to distraction, because I think he favors a general amnesty,” Jamieson told me. “But he is stout on national defense, which I believe is the signal issue of our time and will be for the foreseeable future.”

“For me one of the most important issues is the pro-life issue, and he is solid pro-life, he’s never flip-flopped on it,” added Lococo. “He’s also very strong on foreign policy, Iraq policy, and for me those are the two most important issues right now.” Both men said the issue of appointing judges is very important for them, and they trust McCain to choose conservative nominees.

But what about what they’re hearing about McCain on talk radio? “I wish it would stop,” Lococo told me. “I’m a little surprised by Sean Hannity. Actually, he’s really made me angry about it, because he’s had Senator McCain on for years on his show, always treated him with respect, and when they disagreed it was not venomous like it is now. I was listening to Hannity in the car today, and I had to turn it off, I couldn’t listen any more, because it was like he was talking about Hillary Clinton or Al Gore or John Kerry.”

They’re just two people, but Jamieson and Lococo are a picture of the other side of the war over McCain. By any standard, they’re good conservative Republicans. They vote for the GOP candidate for president, they support the party’s positions, they don’t like Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry. They listen to talk radio. And they support John McCain.

After his wins Tuesday, McCain’s path to the nomination looks reasonably clear. Though Mike Huckabee is emerging as a tenacious regional candidate, the threat from Mitt Romney appears to be receding. An apparent Romney surge in California had the McCain team quite worried in the last 48 hours, but it appears not to have materialized. (It’s just the most recent example; in a number of primaries there has been talk about last-minute Romney surges which did not materialize.) In addition, several upcoming big-state primaries are open contests, giving McCain his traditional advantage of independent support.

So in a few weeks, barring major unforeseen events or a great act of self-destruction, John McCain may become the new standard bearer of the Republican party. The only question is how much of the party will actually stand behind him.


The Latest