TAMPA -- John McCain has just had a heck of a week. He's peaking at the right time in Florida, perhaps just in time to come away Tuesday evening with the Sunshine State's 57 convention delegates as well as momentum into Super Tuesday, just a week after Florida's primary.
In boxing, when a fighter flurries at the end of a round he may win it even if he hadn't been the best up to the flurry. It's called stealing a round. Bad name, but a legit strategy. If you're susceptible to sports metaphors, as I am, this may be the way you see the last few days for McCain.
And what an important round Florida will be. Besides the large number of delegates at stake, this will be the first time McCain can show what he has without any help from independents. Only Republicans can vote in the Florida Republican primary.
The biggest event in the McCain week came Saturday night when he got the endorsement of popular Florida Governor Charlie Crist in front of about 500 well-dressed Republicans and bo-koo television cameras at a Lincoln Day dinner in St. Petersburg.
This endorsement, which got a lot of play in Florida and across the nation, came barely more than 24 hours after Crist stood right in front of me and a bunch of other reporters in Tampa and said he would likely not endorse any candidate in the primary and hadn't even made up his mind who he would vote for. "I'll have to figure that out by Tuesday," he said. I guess he did with a couple of days to spare. Our Charlie can make up his mind quickly when the need arises.
After a hug-fest with Crist at the podium Saturday, where Crist demonstrated a firm grasp of the obvious when he called McCain "a true American hero," McCain gave a rousing and well-received speech. He hit the themes of rehabilitating our economy by bringing sanity to government spending, making the Bush tax cuts for individuals permanent and making corporate tax rates competitive, and defending the country against Islamic jihadists.
He didn't shy away from his own party's failure to control spending, saying, "We came to power in '94 to change government and government changed us." His take on the war against Islamic jihadists is clear enough: "We will never surrender." Rather than resorting to any of the verbal stool softeners the Left uses on the subject, he called Islamic extremists and jihadists, "a great force of evil that wants to destroy everything we stand for." Exactly so. And enough to make a multi-culturalist sleep with a night light.
McCain told a moving story about a fellow prisoner in North Vietnam, Michael Christian, who fashioned an American flag out of scraps of cloth he had found and with a needle he made himself from wood and sewed the flag on the inside of his shirt. Of course the prison guards found the flag eventually and beat the flag-maker severely. But Christian was sewing another flag as soon as he was returned to the cell he shared with McCain and others. You'd have to have a heart of stone -- or be a stoned liberal -- not to be moved by this story. And the audience clearly was. Not many dry eyes in the house after that one.
The man in McCain's story, McCain himself, and countless others in America's conflicts certainly come much closer to the traditional definitions of hero and patriot than the liberal concept of these, which nowadays usually means a victim, or someone who goes to the wall for "a woman's right to chose." Whatever else John McCain is, he's as red, white, and blue as they come.
BUT IT'S THE WHATEVER ELSE that's the rub, isn't it? After all, we're not choosing the Patriot of the Year. We're not choosing the candidate who's laid the most on the line for his country. If we were, McCain would have the field to himself. No, we're deciding whether we want to turn the keys to the Oval Office over to McCain. And this choice is much tougher.
Outside the ballroom before the dinner I had the opportunity to talk to dozens of Republicans as they socialized and prepared for their exercise in civics alongside the four thoughtfully provided cash bars. McCain inspires admiration and real enthusiasm among his supporters, many of whom were more than glad to talk to me about how their guy is a truly great American and the leader the country needs now. But McCain also inspires lockjaw in his detractors. And he has many of these, most calling themselves conservatives, in Florida as he has elsewhere.
On Friday McCain also got the endorsement of Florida's U.S. Senator Mel Martinez. Most recall that Martinez was lately vice president for making Hispanics like Republicans for the Republican National Committee, and worked tirelessly, along with McCain, W, and Teddy Kennedy, in a failed attempt to pass the much-despised "We Don't Need No Stinking Borders Act of 2007." Regular walking-around Americans disliked this obvious get-into-America-free card for anyone who wanted to take the trouble to sneak across a border that they blew out the Capitol Hill switchboard calling to object to it. So the Martinez endorsement cut little ice with the conservative crowd.
The conservative un-McCain crowd also doesn't fancy the McCain-Feingold Act, which they see as a frontal assault on the First Amendment and proof that McCain doesn't understand freedom of speech. There was also much carping about the unseemly way McCain has been playing footsie with the global warming hysterics. They fear, quite reasonably, that putting limits on use of fossil fuels, as this bunch wants and McCain seems to accept, would damage our economy severely without producing any environmental results of value.
CANDIDATES TURNED OFF by what they see as McCain's liberalism have the choice to turn to Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani. But with all the headlines McCain has been getting, these two were having a difficult time in the final weekend of the primary campaign here in getting into the conversation.
Romney has been making appearances, but it almost seems like his main ground game is leaving recorded message on my answering machine (seven in the last three days). And those who suggested that Mike Huckabee was just the flavor of the month were wrong. It appears now he was the flavor of the fortnight. Polls here point to a fourth place finish for Governor Mike. Giuliani still continues to campaign at a manic pace. Part of his weekend schedule included time at a synagogue in Boca Raton. His advisors must have neglected to point out to him that you could get all the Republicans in South Florida into a large walk-in closet.
But Romney and Giuliani are still in the fight. A Reuters/C-Span/Zogby tracking poll taken 1/24 through 1/26 shows Romney and McCain tied at 30 percent in Florida. The Real Clear Politics average of polls taken between 1/20 and 1/26 shows Romney ahead at 27.1 percent and McCain at 26.7 percent. "Da Mare" is third with 17.1 percent and Huckabee trails at 14.7 percent.
So who will prevail on Tuesday? Will it be the conservative purists who can't choke down McCain's liberal history and dodgy positions on immigration and global warming? Or will it be those who see McCain as an inspiring American hero and leader, positions be damned? Those who like McCain as a man tend also to be those who, with some supporting evidence from polls that match up the various Republican candidates with the Democrat candidate, see McCain as the best way for the Republicans to avoid a 2008 case of presidential electile dysfunction.
Romney and Giuliani have a day and change to stop the McCain flurry.
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