The plurality candidate
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — Faced again in South Carolina with scurrilous charges against his character and patriotism, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., with the help of a truth squad answered the attacks calmly and factually, without assailing any of the other candidates. On election night, second-place finisher former Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., commended him on the campaign he had run. And the state that eight years ago ended McCain’s presidential chances became the scene of his political rebirth.
Huckabee campaign aides would later say that if former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., hadn’t been in the race taking a portion of the evangelical vote, Huckabee would have won, not McCain. Another irony overlooked in the immediate aftermath of the primary: McCain’s percentage of the vote in ‘08 as the winner in South Carolina was less than what he received as a loser in 2000 when the contest was a two-man race between McCain and George W. Bush.
McCain benefits from the fact that there are several viable Republican contenders to split the vote. Otherwise he would have a hard time winning any primaries. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with 35 percent of the vote, enough in a fractured field, and the key to McCain’s strategy. He is a plurality candidate. If he continues to capture a plurality in states where under Republican rules the winner gets all the delegates, then that is his path to the Republican nomination.
He can win 35 percent of the vote especially if Independents are allowed into the process. But if the test becomes his ability to win 51 percent of Republican voters, he probably can’t do it. He has alienated too many wings and factions in the GOP. Social conservatives don’t trust him even though he has consistently voted pro-life.
Economic conservatives don’t trust him because he didn’t initially support President Bush’s tax cuts. Even his record of working across party lines in Congress raises questions among the GOP faithful about his partisan loyalties.
Thompson took votes away from Huckabee in South Carolina and assured McCain a critical victory. He could have played the same role in Florida, the next battleground for Republicans, but that wasn’t enough to keep him in the race. He sounded like a candidate on the verge of withdrawing when he addressed supporters after finishing third in South Carolina, a state he needed to revive his candidacy. He made his exit from the race official on Tuesday with a brief statement issued by his campaign. Thompson and McCain are friends, and the assumption is that he’ll find a way to steer his support to McCain.
Thompson’s campaign has been the most puzzling of this election season. He entered the race with a great deal of ballyhoo about his ability to be the next Ronald Reagan. He brought physical stature and acting ability but was surprisingly vacant when it came to offering a governing vision or proposing policy ideas. A dozen years out of elective office had taken their toll and Thompson wasn’t willing to play catch-up. His lackadaisical work habits became the butt of jokes on the campaign trail, and his appeals to regional pride as a Southerner weren’t enough to sustain his candidacy.
The wild card in Florida is former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, R-N.Y., who considers himself a big-state guy and chose not to compete in the early small-state contests. He’s banking on winning the state on the theory that a victory in Florida will then catapult him into the February 5 sweepstakes when 22 states vote, including Rudy-friendly California, New York and New Jersey. However, it’s hard to sustain a candidacy built on momentum if you don’t have any. If Giuliani falters in Florida, he could be gone. Still, it’s possible, even likely, that three or four Republican contenders could come limping out of Florida, setting the stage for McCain and his 35 percent winner-take-all strategy.
Published in The Messenger 1.28.08