Now McCain must win over the right

John McCain, the irrepressible Senator from Arizona, stood on the brink of winning the Republican party’s nomination for United States president this week with almost half of the magic number of 1 191 delegates needed to win the race in the bag.

McCain emerged as the clear front-runner from Super Tuesday, taking important states such as California, Illinois and New York and pushing his total delegate count to 559 and rising. He will now look to the primaries in Kansas, Louisiana and Washington on Saturday and other big election dates next Tuesday and March 4 to finish off the job.

”I’ve never minded the role of underdog,” he said in typically self-deprecating fashion in his address to supporters in Arizona on Tuesday night. ”Tonight I think we could get used to the idea that we are the Republican party nomination.”

But nailing the nomination is starting to look like the easy part of the task facing McCain over the next 10 months. The closer he gets to securing the Republican candidacy, the louder grow the protests from the right of the party denouncing him as a traitor to the cause of Reaganite conservatism.

Rush Limbaugh, the radio talk-show host who has emerged as the McCain-basher-in-chief, was back on the offensive within hours of the polls closing on Super Tuesday. On his website and in his radio broadcasts to 612 stations across the US, he criticised McCain for his allegedly anti-conservative positions on issues from immigration to tax cuts, and hinted that he might consider voting for the Democratic candidate in November.

”One question I asked myself: If down the road you think that the election of Obama, Hillary, or McCain is going to result in very bad things happening to the country, who would you rather get the blame for it?” he said.

Conservative revolt

McCain’s intensifying hostilities with the Republican right will come to a head on Thursday when he will stand before 6 000 conservative foot soldiers at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. He can expect a frosty reception. David Keene, CPAC’s chairperson, has made barbed comments about the fact that last year McCain ”blew off the conference as unimportant”.

But this year McCain will very much be in attendance, and his challenge will be to overcome those suspicions.

He will call for the appointment of conservative judges who could restrict access to abortion, underline his credentials as the one to stand firm in Iraq, and renew his pledge to make George Bush’s tax cuts permanent.

McCain will come to the meeting buoyed by his Super Tuesday victories that give him authority no matter what his detractors say. He will also be encouraged by detailed analysis of exit polls that show him making inroads among hardcore Republicans.

Analysis by The Associated Press of voters in 16 of the 22 Super Tuesday states found that 40% of those describing themselves as ”regular Republicans” opted for McCain. That was notably more than either Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee.

Add to that McCain’s commanding lead among Republican candidates with moderates and independents, older voters, Hispanic voters and military veterans and you can begin to see the formation of a powerful alliance of interests.

But the exit polls also highlighted his difficulties with evangelical and born-again Christians in the South who flocked on Tuesday to Huckabee, and conservative Republicans who continue to favour Romney. ”McCain is running against himself, mainly,” said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution think tank. ”Romney and Huckabee are not credible nominees but are there to register conservative discontent with McCain.”

That discontent appears to stem from McCain’s record of contrariness. Opponents dislike in particular his cross-party work with Ted Kennedy and the independent former Democrat Joe Lieberman, his pursuit of party finance reform and his backing for Bush’s Bill to legalise many of the 12-million undocumented immigrants. Hostility towards such policies, which critics label as ”maverick”, came close to destroying McCain last summer when the backlash to his immigration stance drained him of cash and support.

Down to almost his last penny, he was rescued by a last-minute $3-million bailout from a donor who insisted on McCain taking out life insurance to guarantee the money back in case the senator died on the campaign trail.

Robert Timberg, author of the McCain biography An American Odyssey, said his ability to upset people was evenly spread. ”Who has John McCain not angered — Republicans, Democrats, independents? He’s an equal opportunities antagonist.”

One of the puzzles about the McCain malaise is that if you look at his Senate voting record, he has been conservative on most core issues, opposing abortion and gun control. William Dixon, head of political science at the University of Arizona, said McCain is widely misunderstood. ”He is not that much of a maverick. He’s even less of a maverick than he would like to portray himself.” But being seen as maverick allows McCain to speak to the millions of independents and moderates repulsed by the ideological Republicanism espoused by Limbaugh.

This presents McCain-baiters with a conundrum that sooner or later they will be forced to confront. Do they want to preserve the purity of rightwing Republicanism at all costs? Or do they want to win?

Life and times


Born August 29 in the Panama Canal Zone. His father and grandfather were admirals in the US Navy.


Entered the US Naval Academy and then the navy.


Graduated from flight school as a naval pilot, flying attack aircraft.


His ship, the USS Forrestal, sent to take part in the bombing campaign against North Vietnam. On his 23rd bombing mission his A-4 Skyhawk hit by missile. Captured after ejecting and breaking both arms and a leg. Sent to Hoa Loa Prison in Hanoi — nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by US prisoners of war. Spent much of his time in solitary confinement and endured savage torture.


Released after Paris Peace Accords and greeted as a hero. Still on crutches, he underwent painful therapy to regain his flight status.


Divorced first wife and married Cindy Lou Hensley, 17 years his junior.


Retired from navy with the rank of captain and five bravery medals.


Elected to the House of Representatives for Arizona.


Elected to the Senate.


Announced he was running for the Republican presidential nomination against George Bush. Withdrew in March 2000 after bitter battle.


Announced his second bid for the presidency.

— Â

Keep the powerful accountable

Subscribe for R30/mth for the first three months. Cancel anytime.

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.

Ed Pilkington
Ed Pilkington works from New York. Chief reporter of the @GuardianUS. [email protected] Public key: Ed Pilkington has over 19685 followers on Twitter.

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

Protected Disclosures Act: How did whistleblowing law go wrong?

Current legislation mainly protects employees and those who make allegations anonymously and offers too little protection for witnesses

Covid-19 hospital admissions on the rise in Gauteng as fourth...

Most of the admissions are of unvaccinated and younger people, but there are fears of a spread to older people

South Africa Aids gains in danger as it grapples with...

Sex education will help prevent new HIV infections, expert says

I am not giving up, says rape survivor Jess Foord

Jes Foord told Lyse Comins that she believes she had to get the horrific ‘degree in rape’ so that she could help thousands of sexual violence victims through her nonprofit foundation

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…