TAMPA, FL -- Should John McCain's big victory here in Florida vault him to the Republican nomination, it will raise serious questions about how much influence conservative activists and opinion makers actually have over the GOP electorate.
Few Republicans are as reviled by elite conservatives as McCain. On a litany of issues, including immigration, campaign finance reform, judicial nominations, and taxes, McCain has angered important constituencies within the conservative movement.
During the campaign, McCain has consistently ruffled the feathers of influential conservative groups. He did not sign Americans For Tax Reform's Taxpayer Protection Pledge, and of another important organization of economic conservatives, he said, "I'm not sure what the Club for Growth and I have really in common." He was the only presidential candidate to skip CPAC last year, the largest annual gathering of conservatives, and he was even booed in absentia.
In the build up to the Republican primary here, leading conservatives launched a series of heated attacks on McCain in print, on blogs, and on talk radio, reminding conservatives of his various apostasies in an effort to stop his ascent. They failed to stop it.
McCAIN IS NOT the only Republican who has persevered despite incurring the wrath of conservatives. Though Mike Huckabee will not win the Republican nomination, whatever happens from here, his presidential run has to be seen as a remarkable success. Despite starting with practically no national name recognition and having little money, he was able to become one of the frontrunners for the nomination.
He accomplished this even though, like McCain, he made enemies of many conservatives. The Club for Growth has been hammering him throughout the campaign for his economic liberalism, and rather than attempt to make peace with them, he lambasted them as the "Club for Greed."
Like McCain, he also became a prime target for talk radio show hosts because of his populist economic rhetoric, nanny state impulses, and odd foreign policy statements. Through all of this, he was able to win Iowa, and make a strong enough showing in subsequent states to remain in the race through Super Tuesday. He now is being touted as a possible vice presidential candidate, and at a minimum, he has emerged as the most prominent evangelical political leader in the country.
Rush Limbaugh, the most popular conservative talk show host, has pounded Huckabee and McCain on a daily basis, declaring that if either of them is the nominee, "it's going to destroy the Republican Party."
IN STARK CONTRAST to McCain and Huckabee is Mitt Romney. Seeking to overcome his background as a moderate Republican from Massachusetts, Romney pulled out all the stops to win over conservative elites.
Romney donated tens of thousands of dollars to conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society. In contrast to McCain, Romney was the first Republican candidate to sign the anti-tax pledge, he is deemed acceptable by the Club for Growth, he not only attended CPAC last year but worked aggressively to win the presidential straw poll taken there.
By the end of the year, it seemed like Romney was making inroads. Influential conservative leaders such as Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich and American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene threw their support behind Romney, and National Review endorsed him in a cover story.
Yet in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida where he grossly outspent his rivals, Romney lost to candidates deemed unacceptable to Beltway conservatives. In Michigan, the one contested race where he did win, his message was less about being the candidate best able to unite all three branches of the Republican Party, and more about economic populism.
This was an unusual election year for several reasons. It was a wide open race, with a highly fractured field, and a number of twists and turns that allowed McCain to achieve a string of victories with a plurality of the vote. Had it not been for the opposition of elite conservatives, McCain and Huckabee may have done even better, and without their support, it's possible Romney would have fared a lot worse.
While it's debatable whether a McCain nomination should be seen as a defeat for conservatism, it would no doubt be a blow to the clout of conservative elites. If the lesson of the primary season is that Republicans can succeed in spite of fierce opposition from conservative leaders -- and fail despite their support -- Republican politicians seeking higher office in the future may be inclined to give them the cold shoulder.
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