Trying to figure out how and why Senator John McCain triumphed over his competitors Saturday in the South Carolina primary is like trying to figure out why professional football teams have success in the playoffs. In other words, the calculus is not easy, but there are factors worth discussing. The Washington Post made a valiant effort the day after the polls closed citing a bunch of conventional wisdom and ran with the theme that McCain won despite the opposition of the traditional stalwarts of the Republican Party:
DeLay resurfaced on Fox News Friday to excoriate McCain for working with "the most liberal Democrats in the Senate," for passing an overhaul of campaign finance laws that "completely neutered the Republican Party," and single-handedly thwarted oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"McCain has done more to hurt the Republican Party than any elected official I know of," said DeLay, the former House majority leader, who was personally damaged by McCain's Senate probe of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a probe that implicated numerous DeLay associates.
Conservative blogger Patrick Ruffini, on the Web site of popular radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, implored South Carolina Republicans on Friday to vote for Huckabee, simply to extend the nomination fight in hopes that another candidate could derail McCain.
And Jim DeMint, South Carolina's ardently conservative senator who is backing Mitt Romney, issued a message Friday to "fellow conservatives," warning that "Washington experience is the problem, not the solution. We cannot afford to have a President who has fought for amnesty for illegal immigrants, voted against the Bush Tax Cuts, and curtailed our First Amendment rights in the ill-conceived campaign finance legislation." He never mentioned McCain's name, but his meaning was clear.
Exactly how did McCain overcome this type of opposition in South Carolina? The Post's answer is less than complete, at least from my perspective, because it ignores McCain's well-publicized efforts to make nice with the conservatively religious wing of the GOP. Most definitely Huckabee won a majority of the hardcore conservative Christian votes Saturday, but what McCain didn't have hanging over his shoulders was a running feud with the likes of Jerry Falwell.
According to this CNN report on the poll numbers, McCain's support is rather shallow, and most of his votes comes from moderates, while Huckabee has dominating support from religious right voters:
McCain overcame a strong showing by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee among the evangelical Christian voters who dominated the day's turnout.
Huckabee, the winner of the January 3 Iowa caucuses, led widely among the self-described evangelicals who made up nearly 60 percent of the vote, according to exit polls. The Baptist pastor-turned-governor sharply emphasized his conservative Christian credentials in the state and was the choice of 40 percent of those voters.
But he took only 12 percent of the nonevangelical vote, while McCain took 40 percent and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney took 21 percent.
The problem with the story line that has McCain and the moderates facing off against the religious right voters behind Huckabee is that McCain is not despised the way he was 8 years ago. Nevertheless, the story line may emerge in the coming weeks, particularly if future poll results show such a stark disparity between the two factions of the Republican Party.
My prediction is that if McCain (or Giuliani) wins on Super Tuesday, we'll see more than a fair share of articles once again about the declining influence of conservative Christians in the Republican Party and little will be said about McCain's efforts to win their support.
UPDATE: This article by conservative radio talk show host Michael Medved explains the outcome of South Carolina most bluntly:
For more than a month, the leading conservative talkers in the country have broadcast identical messages in an effort to demonize Mike Huckabee and John McCain. If you've tuned in at all to Rush, Sean, Savage, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, Hugh Hewitt, Dennis Prager, and two dozen others you've heard a consistent drum beat of hostility toward Mac and Huck. As always, led by Rush Limbaugh (who because of talent and seniority continues to dominate the medium) the talk radio herd has ridden in precisely the same direction, insisting that McCain and Huckabee deserve no support because they're not "real conservatives." A month ago, the angry right launched the slogan that Mike Huckabee is a "pro-life liberal." More recently, after McCain's energizing victory in New Hampshire, they trotted out the mantra that the Arizona Senator (with a life-time rating for his Congressional voting record of 83% from the American Conservative Union) is a "pro-war liberal."
Well, the two alleged "liberals," McCain and Huckabee just swept a total of 63% of the Republican vote in deeply conservative South Carolina. Meanwhile, the two darlings of talk radio -- Mitt Romney and, to a lesser extent, Fred Thompson -- combined for an anemic 31% of the vote.
Medved goes onto conclude that "the talk radio jihad against Mac and Huck" has failed to damage those candidates, but "has damaged, and may help destroy, talk radio." Ouch.
Photo of McCain in Portsmouth, N.H. from Wikipedia.