Yesterday's losses are a reminder McCain still has work to do

Yesterday, Mike Huckabee crushed John McCain in Kansas, narrowly prevailed in Louisiana and barely lost Washington. Yet, even these losses barely cut in John McCain's overwhelming delegate lead since Huckabee will get no delegates whatsoever out of his win in Louisiana. And by barely holding on to Washington , McCain prevented a Huckabee sweep and a storyline that could have extended the race a bit longer.

There is very little doubt that McCain will emerge as his party's nominee. In fact, the coming Virginia primary could mark the end of Huckabee's candidacy if McCain demonstrates (as the polls suggest he will) that he can win a Southern state, undercutting Huckabee's last remaining argument.

There is no question that yesterday's results show that McCain has much to do to address the concerns of his party's base. But Mike Huckabee is not the candidate who can take advantage of that, as many conserative leaders distrust him as much -- if not more -- as they do McCain. In fact, Huckabee probably took more hits from the Right in the past few months than McCain did, and at much more crucial moments. Some conservatives attempted a last-minute rally around Mitt Romney in the run-up to Super Tuesday but Romney's withdrawal thwarted that plan.

Since then, James Dobson, the influential leader of Focus on the Family, endorsed Huckabee, reiterating his refusal to vote for McCain even in the general election. But Huckabee at this time would need to extend his appeal beyond the evangelical movement to be more competitive outside of the South. And much of the conservative establishment is now rallying behind McCain, starting with former Virginia Senator George Allen (whose name you can expect to hear often in the coming months as a potential vice-presidential pick) who accompanied McCain at Thursday's CPAC meeting.

Speaking minutes after Romney's withdrawal, McCain sought to address the concern of conservatives, invoking Ronald Reagan (as he often does in debates) and listing his credentials: "I believe today, as I believed twenty-five years ago, in small government; fiscal discipline; low taxes; a strong defense; judges who enforce, and not make, our laws; the social values that are the true source of our strength; and, generally, the steadfast defense of our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which I have defended my entire career as God-given to the born and unborn."

The good news for him is that he has nine months before November, leaving him ample time to court conservatives and pivot to the general election. And he will be able to appeal to the Right without too many independents paying attention, as most people's attention is focused on the Democratic primary race. But McCain should also be careful, as past elections have shown that lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Right can often lead to low turnout. No one is suggesting that the conservatives who distrust McCain will cross-over to vote Democratic, but that many of them could stay at home.

Since the Republican electorate already is showing much less enthusiasm than the Democratic, this could only accentuate the GOP's problem. The Dem turnout has been superior to the Republican in every state but Arizona, Utah and (barely) Alabama. The trend continued yesterday, starting Louisiana where Democratic turnout was twice as strong as the Republican, 384,000 versus 161,000. Such comparisons will soon not be possible, since the GOP race will soon be resolved. The Republicans have to find a way to motivate their base if they want to keep the White House in November, and McCain is not necessarily the candidate best equipped to do so.


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