by Lowman S. Henry | April 29, 2008

McCain fails to get a grip on GOP’s conservative base

Republicans are taking great delight in the street brawl that has developed over the Democratic Presidential nomination.  Senator John McCain is trotting around the country and the globe acting every bit like a President-elect who is sitting in the green room just waiting to take the stage.  But, looks can be deceiving and beneath the calm façade the GOP faces a smoldering problem of its own.

The problem is that since effectively winning the Republican nomination back in early March the McCain campaign has not accomplished it number one and most pressing goal: uniting the party by bringing the conservative base into the fold.  A string of recent events suggests that while more pragmatic conservatives are supporting McCain as the lesser of three evils, idealist conservatives are not yet on board.

Republicans cracked a sly smile when Ralph Nader, the consumer activist turned political spoiler, announced he would again seek the Presidency as a third party candidate.  He, of course, has no chance of winning, but is widely credited (or blamed) for costing Al Gore Florida and the presidency in the closely fought and hotly disputed 2000 election.  Given that 2008 could be equally as close, GOP strategists welcomed the Nader candidacy as a possible ace up their sleeve come November.

But the GOP is threatening to fracture as well. Former Congressman Bob Barr, who helped lead the impeachment effort against then-President Bill Clinton, bolted the GOP for the Libertarian Party last year and is now seeking its Presidential nomination.  He is competing with another bit player, former Democratic Presidential candidate Mike Gravel, once a U.S. Senator from Alaska, for the Libertarian nod.  Should Barr prevail in the nomination fight, he could siphon a percentage point or two from the Republican vote.

Itinerant firebrand Alan Keyes announced during a recent appearance in Pennsylvania that he too is leaving the Republican Party. He wanted the Constitution Party nomination, but was denied when the nod went to radio talk show host Chuck Baldwin. Aside from a failed bid to remain relevant, Keyes move to the Constitution Party offers a glimpse into the thinking of other conservative Republicans who hold similar views.

Inside the GOP all is not well.  Recent efforts by the Nevada state party to hold a convention to select its national convention delegates adjourned in chaos after it became apparent that supporters of Congressman Ron Paul outnumbered those favoring McCain. Party leadership ended the meeting rather than allow Paul to seize control of the state’s delegation.

And, in the recent Pennsylvania Primary, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee who name remained on the ballot, and Congressman Paul, who is still actively campaigning, captured 27% of the vote.  That 27% of Pennsylvania Republicans would vote for candidates with absolutely zero chance of winning the party’s Presidential nomination is a clear indication of the level of their discontent.

This does not bode well for McCain’s chances of winning Pennsylvania and its 21 electoral votes in November.  Although he has the nomination wrapped up, McCain missed a chance to lay the groundwork for a general election victory by ignoring the Pennsylvania primary.  He made just two appearances in the state ceding the spotlight entirely to the Democrats, who were energized by the contest.  The result was that McCain appeared to not care, and 27% of Pennsylvania Republicans abandoned their eventual nominee in protest.

It is highly unlikely that anywhere near 27% of Republican voters will cast their ballots for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in November.  But, it is plausible that three, four, or five percent will vote for the nominee of either the Libertarian and/or Constitution parties.  And that could be the margin by which the state is won or lost and by which 21perhaps pivotal electoral votes will be decided.

McCain has managed to push his problems with the GOP’s conservative base off the front pages, but like the homeowner who ignores the termites eating away at the foundation, it could become the problem which brings down the whole house.  If McCain is to prevail in November he and his campaign are going to have to do a better job of bringing conservatives into the fold, or at least begin giving off the appearance of trying.