Super Tuesday Analysis: GOP Battles Over Who’s a Real Conservative

While Mitt Romney easily swept the majority of Colorado caucus votes, the Republican race for the White House is still up for grabs.

Holly Yeager of The Washington Independent puts it into perspective.The votes were still being counted Tuesday night when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) looked ahead to the next stage of the Republican primary campaign, trying to shore up support among conservatives who remain resistant to his candidacy.

“I enlisted as a soldier in the Reagan revolution,” McCain declares in a new television advertisement that aired in the Washington, D.C., area, home of much of the conservative establishment and the site of next week’s so-called Potomac Primary for voters in Maryland, Washington and Virginia.

The spot shows McCain, the war hero, when he was a POW in Vietnam, then shaking hands with Ronald Reagan, a revered figure in the modern conservative movement. The tag line: “John McCain, the true conservative.”

The direct appeal to the conservative base of the Republican Party came as McCain claimed victory in nine states on Super-Duper Tuesday — a strong showing, but not enough to take a firm hold of the nomination.

For McCain, though, it was enough to claim the lead. “Tonight,” he told cheering supporters in Phoenix, “I think we must get used to the idea that we are the Republican Party front-runner for the nomination of president of the United States.”

The results also brought more cheer to Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher, who showed surprising strength, winning states across the South with strong support from evangelicals. It rescued his candidacy, at least for the time being.

“Over the past few days, a lot of people have been saying this is a two-man race,” Huckabee declared in Little Rock. “And you know what? It is. And we’re in it.”

Mitt Romney, who had hoped to be the second man in that two-man race, also won several states on Tuesday — including Massachusetts, where he was governor, and Michigan, where his father served as governor. He beat McCain among voters who identified themselves as conservatives, 42 percent to 30 percent, according to national exit polls, and vowed, too, to keep fighting.

The protracted battle is unusual for Republicans, who generally fall in line quickly behind an establishment candidate. Some party leaders, including Haley Barbour, the Mississippi governor and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, have begun to urge the GOP to avoid further in-fighting and coalesce around a nominee. This has been the party’s standard operating procedure.

But conservatives remain unhappy with McCain, pointing to his opposition to President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, his support for immigration reform, his authorship of campaign finance reform and his public clashes with leaders of the religious right. Their displeasure is expected to be in evidence later this week in Washington, D.C., at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

James Dobson, the founder and CEO of Focus on the Family, yesterday showed no signs of softening his opposition to McCain. “I am convinced Sen. McCain is not a conservative,” he said, “and in fact, has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are. He has sounded at times more like a member of the other party. … I cannot, and will not, vote for Sen. John McCain, as a matter of conscience.” (As Colorado Confidential reported, Dobson has yet to say whom he would support.)

McCain relied Tuesday on the votes of moderates, who favored him over Romney, 52 percent to 24 percent. In California, the biggest prize of the night, 51 percent of Republican voters who think abortion should be legal backed McCain — even though he is not pro-choice. Many of his victories came in states like Connecticut, Illinois and New York, which often go to Democrats in general elections.

While such backing may help McCain secure the nomination — he now has more than half the delegates he needs — party strategists worry it could hurt Republican chances of holding on to the White House in November’s general election. Conservatives have provided much of the party’s election-day prowess in recent years, and lackluster support for McCain could keep some away from the polls.

McCain’s struggle with the core of the GOP was also evident in the results in his home state of Arizona, a traditional conservative stronghold. He won the state, but his 47 percent share of the vote was a less-than-overwhelming endorsement from those who know him best. Romney took 34  percent of the vote.

Romney and McCain also clashed Tuesday in West Virginia, where Romney won the first round of voting at a GOP caucus. Under party rules, he did not have enough votes to be declared the winner, so a second round was held. At that point, McCain’s backers threw their support to Huckabee, making him the winner in the state.

The Romney campaign used the episode to hammer home its critique of McCain. “Unfortunately, this is what Sen. McCain’s inside-Washington ways look like,” said Beth Myers, Romney’s campaign manager. “He cut a back-room deal with the tax-and-spend candidate he thought could best stop Gov. Romney’s campaign of conservative change.”

Whether McCain can convince Republican voters that he, too, stands for conservative change remains to be seen.

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