Sunday, February 10, 2008

McCain's embarrassment, Hillary's risk

A few thoughts on the Saturday contests:

Conservative Republicans clearly aren't anxious to march in step for John McCain. Notwithstanding his hard-won status as putative GOP nominee, they're still in a mood to smack him around.

Republicans generally close ranks once the top guy is essentially chosen, but not this time. McCain was disrespected everywhere yesterday, from the deep South to the far West - further evidence of the intraparty fractures that could undercut McCain's autumn prospects.

Once again, McCain's unpopularity with Christian conservatives was on glaring display. In the Louisiana primary, those folks were pivotal in his narrow defeat. A whopping 57 percent of the GOP primary voters described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians; and of those who did so, Mike Huckabee was the overwhelming favorite, by a margin of 56 to 31 percent.

In the Kansas caucuses, Huckabee smoked McCain in a landslide, 60 to 24 percent. To win in that kind of format, a candidate needs to attract enthusiasts who are willing to show up in droves and stick around for hours. McCain apparently didn't have much pull with the state's old-line Republicans, the kind who always voted for home-boy Bob Dole. By contrast, Christian conservatives are very active within the Kansas GOP (they have fought hard in recent years to deny the teaching of evolution), and Huckabee is their kind of guy.

As for the caucuses in Washington State, McCain has apparently eked out a narrow win over Huckabee (although the votes are still being tallied). But again, this is evidence of a serious passion deficit. McCain, at last count, won only 26 percent of the participants - in a place heavily populated by McCain-friendly moderates. Huckabee was only two points behind, and Ron Paul was only five points behind. Paul was the beneficiary of a large libertarian turnout - another conservative faction, one that is strong in western states.

So clearly, with respect to his right flank, and with an eye to November, McCain still needs to genefluct a lot more. President Bush thinks so, too. This morning, Bush told Fox News: "I think that if John’s the nominee, he has got some convincing to do to convince people that he is a solid conservative. And I’ll be glad to help him if he’s the nominee."

I'll be glad to help him...Maybe Bush can go to the conservative base and say, "Hey, remember how my surrogates smeared McCain eight years ago by spreading rumors that he'd fathered a black baby out of wedlock? And that he had voted against cancer research, even though, in reality, he had voted for it many times? And that he had a 'loose screw' because of his years as a POW? And that his wife was a drug addict? And that he was 'the fag candidate'?...Well, never mind!"


As for the Democrats, I sense that Hillary Clinton might be at risk for contracting Rudy's Disease.

She was waxed yesterday in all three contests - the Louisiana primary, and the caucuses in Nebraska and Washington State - as well as in the Virgin Islands. (When, in the past, has there ever been a race that compels us to pay attention to the Virgin Islands?) All told, Barack Obama appears to have scored a net gain of roughly 40 delegates, which means that he and his rival are nearly tied.

Maine is holding caucuses today, and she may do well there. But she is likely to lose on Tuesday, perhaps badly, in the Virginia and Maryland primaries (lots of upscale white liberals live in northern Virginia, and lots of black voters statewide; in Maryland, a large black electorate.) Nine days from now, she may lose again in Wisconsin (lots of upscale white liberals, and a big college town). But her people figure that she'll recoup lost ground in the big states of Texas and Ohio on March 4.

Perhaps she should beware of Rudy's Disease. The Giuliani people figured that, even if Rudy lost all the early primaries, he could always recoup lost ground by winning in Florida; the problem was, by putting all his chips on Florida, he allowed other candidates to gain momentum and successfully use it against him.

The conventional wisdom at the moment is that Hillary will be strong in Texas (lots of Hillary-friendly Hispanics) and Ohio (lots of downscale working-class white Democrats). And maybe that wisdom is correct. But is it possible that if Obama has a strong February, generating a string of OBAMA WINS headlines, he might just take on the aura of a winner and shift enough Texas and Ohio votes to fight Hillary to a virtual draw for those delegates? It's worth pondering.