As truly horrific as it would be for the liberal and unethical Mike Huckabee to win the Republican presidential nomination, many Republicans still believe it would be almost as difficult to stomach the nomination of John McCain.
Huckabee, of course, would utterly destroy the old Reagan coalition, as even his campaign chief Ed Rollins has acknowledged. Huckabee's bizarre propensity for letting criminals return early to freedom, combined with his utter cluelessness about foreign policy, also means that he would get absolutely crushed by the Democrats in a general election contest.
But McCain's problems are almost as great, which is why reports of a comeback by the Arizona senator have so many conservatives scratching their heads.
McCain is, and looks, more than two years older than Ronald Reagan was when Reagan was elected president, and a poll last year showed that 42 percent of respondents said they would not vote for somebody who is 72 years old. That is a far higher percentage than that of people who would not vote for a Mormon (24 percent), a woman (11 percent), or a black person (5 percent).
McCain is not a tax cutter in a party that has made tax cuts one of its most basic tenets for nearly 30 years. Not only did he vote against President George W. Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 -- cuts that clearly are responsible for the booming economy of the past four-plus years -- but just last week he told National Review's Rich Lowry that he was correct not to vote for those tax cuts.
Then, of course, there is the large and passionate segment of the Republican electorate that wants to get tough against illegal immigration, and they have good reason to consider John McAmnesty to be not just against them but a highly disagreeable archenemy.
And speaking of which, McCain seems almost constitutionally unable to disagree without being disagreeable. When he disagrees with somebody on just about any issue, he gives the sense of being so angry that he is having trouble not jumping out of his own skin to wring the other person's neck.
Witness his politically effective but completely cheap shot at Mitt Romney a couple of debates back when Romney made what actually was a reasonable point about the dangers of discussing the specific procedures used in various forms of "waterboarding" terrorist suspects.
In the same debate, McCain vociferously attacked Rudy Giuliani for supposedly being against the line item veto. McCain was wrong and Giuliani right that the form of item-veto at issue was dangerously unconstitutional legislation. (I write this as somebody who has been writing columns in favor of line item vetoes for a full quarter century. Even I, an item-veto supporter, saw from the start that the version supported by McCain was unconstitutional.) But right or wrong, McCain's demeanor was far too aggressive for the case at issue.
In short, McCain is an angry old man.
THEN THERE ARE McCain's weaknesses (from a conservative standpoint) on government regulation and on judges. On the first topic, what it pretty much boils down to is that if something moves, McCain wants to regulate it. He wants to regulate campaign speech, anything having to do with the environment, smoking, the price of medicines (interfering with free-market savings), oil drilling in Alaska, securities trading, and other things.
On judges, McCain repeatedly boasts about being a main mover behind the "Gang of 14" that supposedly helped garner approval for President Bush's nominees. The numbers say otherwise.
With a tiny Republican Senate majority in 2003 and 2004, the Senate approved 19 of Bush's appeals court nominees while blocking 12. But with the Gang of 14 operating in 2005 and 2006, the Senate approved only 16 appeals court nominees (plus two Supreme Court nominees) while again blocking 12 -- even though the party's Senate majority was much bigger, with 55 seats versus just 51 seats in the previous Congress.
What's worse, other than the three nominees immediately approved through the Gang's deal, the few other post-Gang nominees who were approved tended to be less solidly conservative than the ones approved in the previous Congress.
The simple fact is that the Gang of 14 "saved" a "right" to filibuster judicial nominations to death that Republicans have never, ever used, while the alternative to the Gang would have been to deny the Democrats the unconstitutional filibuster option they had grievously abused.
Conservatives were not helped by the Gang. We were mugged.
SUCH REGULAR MUGGINGS of conservatives by McCain helps explain why so many in the conservative movement are unmoved by McCain's story of personal heroism, his stances against wasteful pork barrel spending, and his undeniable leadership on matters of defense.
In contrast to McCain and Huckabee, the three other "major" GOP candidates -- Giuliani, Romney, and Fred Thompson -- all actually governed very much as conservatives when they had the chance. And Thompson has a record of both talking and walking the solid conservative line that is almost entirely unblemished by any heresies against the most basic of conservative issue stances. (Long-shot Duncan Hunter, meanwhile, has a quarter-century record as a conservative leader on taxes, defense, and immigration.)
Iowans in their caucuses and New Hampsherites in their primary have the first chances to winnow the Republican field. They would be doing the whole country a great disservice if they winnow one or more of the real conservatives out of the race, while boosting the chances of the two candidates who have done the most to poke the eyes of the Reaganites.