McCain's conservative problem

Fred Barnes:

Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, took time out from his speech to the Leadership Program of the Rockies on February 24 to conduct a straw poll. His audience, assembled at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, consisted of 300 conservatives, the elite of the state's Republican party. Luntz wanted to know whom they favored in the Republican presidential race. "I do this with every crowd I talk to," he says. "As a pollster, I'm the only person who can get away with it."

Luntz asked for a show of hands. Rudy Giuliani got nearly a quarter of the crowd and came in first. Mitt Romney wasn't far behind. Newt Gingrich isn't a candidate, at least not yet, but he finished a solid third. When Luntz asked who supported John McCain, it appeared at floor level that no hands went up. The crowd gasped. "They were shocked at how badly McCain did," Luntz says. And it indeed was bad, but not quite that bad. From the podium, Luntz could see McCain hadn't been shut out. He got three votes.

...

And so we have a major anomaly in the Republican presidential campaign: The candidate with the most conservative record of the top contenders is the least liked by conservatives. The aversion to McCain is often visceral. James Dobson, the Christian conservative who runs Focus on the Family, says he prayed about the Republican presidential campaign and concluded that he couldn't vote for McCain "under any circumstances." Charles Cunningham, the Washington lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, says he won't even consider supporting McCain. Conservative ex-senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania insists McCain "is not one of us and doesn't want to be."

...

McCain has three things to do, and he appears to be doing all of them at the moment. The first is to forget about charming the press. In 2000, his aides joked that McCain's base was the media. In truth, it was. And that's why he lost. Press support and the backing of voters are two different things....

The second thing for McCain to do is reject advice that he become "authentic" by running as a rambunctious maverick, as he did in 2000. "Those who say John has to reattach himself to the maverick label don't understand the challenge he faces," says Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina. McCain needs to attract conservatives. The maverick style, stressing his differences with Republicans and taking jabs at Bush, tends to alienate conservatives.

The press is not helpful in this, quite the contrary....

...

The third imperative for McCain is to become, in Graham's words, "a leader of the party." This is harder than it might seem. McCain is unquestionably a leader, but mostly on issues, like campaign finance reform and treatment of imprisoned terrorists, that aren't Republican causes....

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There is much more. McCain's best issue, and perhaps one of the few where conservatives trust him is on the war, where the media believes he is at his weakest. That is one reason his only hope for winning is to ignore them. He has been on the wrong side of conservatives on several issues important to conservatives and he is still paying the price for being on the media's side on those issues--campaign finance, tax cuts, and immigration. His problem is that his two main competitors are also on the right side of the war. The anti war constituency in the Republican party can barely raise an asterisk. In other words it rates lower than he does in the polls. He has to show leadership by being an articulate spokesman for winning and defeating Democrats on the issue.

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