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early and often

Heilemann: What McCain Must Do Now

McCain

Get a loose enough jacket to put his arms down?Photo: Getty Images

John McCain entered Super-Duper Tuesday with two goals — one obvious and concrete, the other more ephemeral but no less important in the long run. The first of McCain’s aims was to secure enough delegates in the 21 states in which Republicans voted to more or less lock up his party’s nomination. And the second was to win so decisively, so convincingly, that he could turn to the braying, hard-right, anti-McCain caucus and say, in effect: “Hello, people, lookee here, the party has rallied around me; it’s time for you either to get on the bus or shut the fuck up.”

By the end of last night, McCain had come awfully close to accomplishing the first of his goals. With victories in nine states, including the two biggest, California and New York, the Arizona senator emerged with 615 delegates in his pocket, more than half of the 1,191 he needs to become his party’s standard-bearer. Mitt Romney, by contrast, has just 268; Mike Huckabee’s total is a meager 169. Unlike his rivals, McCain now has the wind gusting hard at his back. He has money, he has momentum, he has a calendar replete with McCain-friendly states stretching out before him. The late, great Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards once proclaimed, “The only way I can lose this election is if I'm caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” Something similar can now be said of McCain and the GOP nomination.

But McCain still has a big problem on his hands, one arising out of his manifest failure to accomplish his second objective. All along, McCain’s greatest challenge has been to prove that he can appeal to the party’s base. That he can overcome the long-held suspicions of, and outright hostility toward, him on the true-believing right. All those bad feelings were on vivid display in the days leading up to Super Tuesday, as Rush Limbaugh pummeled him for hours on the airwaves and religious-right pooh-bah Jim Dobson declared that under no circumstances would he vote for him in November. And they were also blaringly evident in the results that rolled in last night. In state after state, McCain was beaten among conservatives by his two remaining rivals, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee — the latter pulling off an astonishing clean sweep of the Bible Belt.

For McCain to have a hope in hell of prevailing against an energized Democratic Party in the fall, he’ll need to forge some unity on his side of the aisle — not to mention persuading the Christianists at the core of the Republican coalition that he’s acceptable. Getting there will be no easy thing in any case, but the task will be immeasurably easier with Romney out of the picture. The outcome yesterday should have offered a fairly clear signal to Governor Headroom that it’s time for him to go. Apart from a handful of caucuses, he won only the primaries in his home state of Massachusetts and in Mormonland. As of now, Romney continues to insist that he intends to fight on — but it’s hard to imagine that after some sober reflection (not to mention what must be the ardent pleas of his kids not continue flushing their inheritance down the toilet), he won’t see the light.

As for Pastor Mike, there’s no earthly (or heavenly) reason for him not to keep on keeping on. Everything he’s done in the race so far has been to McCain’s benefit: persistently cutting into Romney’s conservative support, denying Romney the mano a mano contest he so desperately craved, and needed. So long as Huckabee maintains his sanity and doesn’t go mad-dog on the front-runner, every vote he gets from here on out only enhances his profile, builds his stature, and advances his ultimate cause — which, as everyone with half a brain comprehends, is to land himself the VP slot. Will McCain give it to him? Seems plausible to me. In the primaries, Huckabee has been the answer to McCain’s prayers. In the general, he might, just might, be the solution to McCain’s most nagging problem. —John Heilemann

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