Republican presidential hopeful John McCain’s sweep of big winner-take-all states Tuesday was tempered by warning signs that he has yet to win over GOP partisans and the party’s most conservative voters – many of whom remain suspicious of his past on such issues as taxes and immigration.
Despite amassing the lion’s share of delegates on Super Tuesday, he could face a bitter endgame with rival Mitt Romney as conservative critics scramble to deny the Arizona senator the presidential nomination.
“He’s trying to sell himself as, ‘I’m the real conservative in this race,’ but he’s really depending on the votes of moderates,” Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, says of McCain. “If he continues this pattern and manages to win the nomination, I think it’s trouble for him down the road with uniting the party.”
McCain’s momentum from the primaries that preceded Super Tuesday – in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida – was not enough, at least so far, to prompt key parts of the party to coalesce around him as its likely nominee. Instead, core groups, including evangelical Christians, economic conservatives and national security hawks, remained divided among the remaining contenders.
In surveys of voters as they left polling places, one-third of Republican voters described themselves as “very conservative.” Among them, Romney carried nearly half, Huckabee one in four and McCain just one in five. McCain narrowly led among the one-third of Republican voters who called themselves “somewhat conservative.”
With that divide and strong support from moderates, McCain managed to sweep all of the Super Tuesday primaries in the Northeast except Romney’s home state of Massachusetts and to win states in the Midwest.
McCain and Romney split Republicans, while McCain commanded a wide lead among independents.
The top-ranking issue among Republicans was the economy, and McCain carried those voters. He swamped his rivals among those who identified the war in Iraq as their biggest concern.
But the scars clearly are still fresh from last year’s fight over immigration, when McCain co-sponsored a bill that would have provided a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The issue of immigration ranked second among Republicans, and Romney carried those voters over McCain by more than 2 to 1.
Even before results were settled in all of the 21 Republican contests, the three main contenders each won somewhere:
“McCain carried New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Missouri – all winner-take-all states – as well as California, Illinois, Oklahoma and his home state of Arizona.
“Romney carried Massachusetts and Utah, dominated by voters who share his Mormon faith, and the caucus states Colorado, Minnesota, Montana and North Dakota.
“Huckabee won Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia and his home state of Arkansas.
McCain, Romney and another Republican presidential candidate, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, on Thursday are slated to address the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., a key gathering of conservatives. Huckabee is scheduled to speak there Saturday.
Analysts say Huckabee’s presence and his competitive showing in Southern and border states helped prevent Romney from rising there.
“The secret to this for McCain is that Romney is never able to get him in a one-on-one race,” says Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who was campaign manager for Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign. He’s not affiliated with a campaign this year. “It makes it difficult for Romney ever to thread the needle.”
Nationwide, there were 948 Republican convention delegates at stake in contests in 21 states – including 15 primaries, four caucuses and two party conventions – for the Republican National Convention in September in St. Paul.
The mix of results could encourage McCain’s rivals to stay in the race, at least for a while.
Huckabee addressed his supporters in Little Rock on Tuesday night. “As long as there’s still votes and delegates to be won, until that magic number of 1,191” – the number of delegates needed for the nomination – “there’s going to be one guy answering the bell every time there’s a new round,” Huckabee said.
A half-hour later, Romney addressed his supporters in Boston. “One thing that’s clear is, this campaign is going on,” he said to cheers.