Saturday, February 9, 2008

Romney exit leaves McCain to mend fences

(Originally published 2/9/08)

It’s a good thing I’m a procrastinator.

Here I was, all set to analyze Super Tuesday results for you, when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney shocked influential conservative activists in Washington Thursday with news that he was “suspending” his campaign.

That speech was his best yet. A reporter embedded with the Romney campaign for months noted that the candidate wrote it himself; key staffers didn’t see it until just hours before it was delivered in Washington.

(Sidebar: Candidates are always at their best when they use their own words to express their own ideas. Why don’t they do it more often? Consider Al Gore’s concession speech in December 2000. Gore was nothing of the robotic figure he had taken criticism for being throughout the campaign. Had he shown the country during the campaign the man he was on Dec. 13, 2000, it’s likely he would have given a victory speech on Nov. 7.)

Anyway, Romney’s grand speech managed somehow to be personal, too. As he gave way to presumed GOP nominee-to-be John McCain, the sharp attacks the two exchanged in recent weeks were forgotten, and Romney left only grace in their place. If McCain loses in November, party loyalists who view Romney’s exit as a magnanimous sacrifice will have him in the race again within two years.

For his part, McCain was walking into a den of lions, and he knew it. He has ascended to frontrunner status while being simultaneously attacked from the left and rejected by the right, so U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) reminded the combative crowd that McCain’s Senate record includes more than just campaign finance and immigration reform.

In his speech, McCain approachably yet unapologetically sought to assuage concerns that he is not an appropriate standard-bearer for the conservative principles of the GOP. To sometimes enthusiastic applause, he ticked off issues where he mirrors conservatives, but he also took his lumps by acknowledging his fights with them (his very mention of immigration brought a chorus of boos).

All in all, the speech had a cathartic feel and seemed a satisfying beginning to the inroads that McCain will have to make with the right to win the presidency. It remains to be seen, however, whether McCain will be able to master walking that tightrope between forging the indispensible alliances he needs to win and losing the well-known “maverick” character that one of my smartest friends says makes McCain the “incurable individualist” he may cross over to support in November.

But we may know sooner rather than later. After McCain’s speech, conservative bigwig Richard Viguerie detailed specific things he and others like him will be watching as McCain carries forward. Tops on the list: McCain’s choice for vice president.

Viguerie made no bones that they expect the pick to be someone with impeccable conservative credentials – as the leaders of that movement define those credentials – if McCain hopes to prove himself a true believer to doubters on the right.

Impress your less politically astute friends by explaining to them that this is why the whispers that Mike Huckabee is the odds-on favorite to be McCain’s VP are wrong. Huckabee is simply unacceptable to the Richard Vigueries of the GOP; Viguerie himself wrote a white paper on Huckabee’s record in Arkansas that “exposes his wishy-washiness and support for big government,” according to the paper’s summary.

More likely is a pick from within the right’s affirmed stable – and don’t be surprised if Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour makes the short list.

Next up: Kansas GOP caucuses, Nebraska Democratic caucuses and primaries for both parties in Louisiana and Washington today, to be followed by Democratic caucuses in Maine tomorrow. Check out my blog for more:

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