A few hours after Mitt Romney abruptly withdrew from the presidential race, making John McCain the clear Republican frontrunner, McCain faced an overflow crowd of conservatives in the same Washington ballroom like Daniel entering the lions' den. Daniel fared a little better, but amazingly not by much.
Word apparently went out hours earlier that there would be no booing of McCain by the mostly youthful Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) delegates, according to Politico.com columnist Anne Schroeder Mullins. If so, keeping this crowd polite would be quite a feat. At last year's convention every mention of McCain's name was greeted with jeers.
McCain aggravates conservative stalwarts by wandering off the right-wing reservation on issues like immigration reform, global warming, campaign finance rules and President Bush's tax cuts. Although he still gets ratings of 85 percent or better on most core issues from right-wing ratings organizations, he can also be, if I may paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, an uppity individual who deigns to think for himself.
As a result, outside the ballroom where McCain was to speak, a well-dressed young man held up a hand-lettered cardboard sign announcing, "Republicans Against McCain." On the airwaves at that moment liberal bashers Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter formed a new kamikaze wing of the conservative movement, vowing to support Sen. Hillary Clinton if McCain becomes the Republican nominee.
Yet, somehow, the hyperventilating crisis mode of conservative anti-McCain pundits has not translated very much to rank-and-file Republican voters. Republicans fall in line, Bill Clinton once observed, while Democrats want to fall in love. Following that pattern, McCain has made it back from the near dead in recent weeks while Democrats find themselves deeply divided between two attractive candidates like a previously dateless wonder who suddenly is courting two suitors.
After months of debates and campaigning by stages full of candidates, Republican voters gravitated to the time-tested McCain, partly because it seems to be his turn. Democratic voters, by contrast, find their votes and convention delegates evenly divided by their affections for Sens. Clinton and Barack Obama.
The CPAC delegates also seemed to fall in line behind McCain, at least for the benefit of the folks watching at home. More than polite applause greeted McCain. A few isolated boos, especially when McCain mentioned immigration, were mostly drowned out by crowds of exuberant youths waving blue McCain signs. Interestingly, one particularly exuberant bunch of sign wavers just happened to be directly in front of the platform on which the television cameras were perched. You have to admire that level of organization, whatever your party preference.
McCain's speech was well tailored. He apologized for missing last year's convention. He recalled how "I attended my first CPAC conference as the invited guest of Ronald Reagan, not long after I had returned from overseas, when I heard him deliver his 'shining city upon a hill' speech." He acknowledged his disagreements with conservatives in the past, but also that he shifted his emphasis on immigration reform to border protection after his earlier emphasis on providing a path to citizenship for illegal workers failed to get through Congress. In other words, he was not flip-flopping on his core beliefs, but he was willing to listen to critics.
In the end, McCain appears to be winning by doing things his way and rewriting the conventional rules of his party's politics. Instead of running to the right in the primary, then running to the political center in the general election campaign, as President Richard Nixon used to advise Republicans, McCain is doing it the other way around. Even former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee helps McCain now by staying in the race. He helps to keep McCain's name in the headlines while everyone's attention is focused otherwise on the Democrats' continuing battle.
And conservative fear of a Democratic victory makes Hillary Clinton a major unexpected asset to McCain's campaign. Her name gets a bigger rise out of Republican crowds than any other, except perhaps the ol' Gipper Ronald Reagan himself. Republicans would run vigorously against Obama, too, if he were nominated. But he has yet to arouse the same level of fear and loathing among Republicans. They're having too much fun watching him give headaches to the Clintons.