The conservative revolt could pause McCain's glide to the nomination.

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Feb. 5 2008 11:22 AM

Can McCain Hold It Together?

The conservative revolt could pause his glide to the nomination.

John McCain. Click image to expand.
John McCain

If John McCain wins big on Super Tuesday, his nomination will be all but assured, and he'll get to go on vacation for a little while. That means two days at a Munich security conference the GOP front-runner has attended since before he started running for president. (Last year, he was there watching Putin try to restart the Cold War on the day Barack Obama announced his candidacy.) It's an odd way to rest. McCain will sit in a windowless room with the foreign and defense ministers of the world's nations (almost all of them men), testing his backside through days of speeches and his lungs against the unceasing chain-smoking of foreign dignitaries. McCain is treated like a star at these events, though, and if he goes as the GOP nominee, men who spend their time discussing joint security agreements and threats from stateless actors will get a little giggly.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

But before McCain can join the testosterone caucus in Bavaria, he must deal with his own party's chest-thumpers. On Monday, Rush Limbaugh devoted an entire show to bashing McCain in an attempt to rally conservatives around Mitt Romney. McCain campaigned Monday in New Jersey and New York, ending the day with a press conference in Grand Central Station. Joining him under the enormous chandeliers was an odd coalition of current and retired New York Republican officials, including former Gov. George Pataki and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Both men have publicly and loudly feuded for years. (In 1994, Giuliani endorsed Pataki's Democratic opponent, Mario Cuomo, among other things.) Pataki, who supported George Bush in 2000, also tried unsuccessfully to keep McCain off the primary ballot in that year. So it rang a little hollow when McCain yesterday called him "friend."

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The message of the day was that if McCain could bring the old enemies together, he could unite the Republican Party. But the Republicans McCain is uniting in New York—fiscally conservative but socially moderate—aren't exactly the ones that dislike him so much. What he can't do with ideology, McCain is trying to do by tonnage. Pataki's endorsement was just the latest in a flood that campaign aides hope will prove that Republicans are uniting under the McCain tent.

While McCain was preaching unity, though, he was taking one last tough shot at Romney. An ad he aired the day before the voting began shows Romney distancing himself from Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of all Republicans. An announcer then intones, "If we can't trust Mitt Romney on Ronald Reagan, how can we trust him to lead America?"

The McCain team is worried about Romney's rise over the last several days in California. They are confident they'll win the delegate battle with Romney across the other states at play, like New York, New Jersey, Missouri, and Connecticut, but they worry that in California they'll split the delegate count and maybe lose the popular vote. That will delay the coronation. It's unlikely to upset it, they claim, given the next rounds of contests, many of which are open primaries in which independents and Democrats, with whom McCain does well, can vote. But a Romney win in California will prolong the fight. McCain will have to scrap Munich and head to Virginia to prepare for the primary there in a week.

Giuliani told the Grand Central crowd that McCain would stay on the offensive in the war against radical Islamic terrorists and then reminded us that the space in which we stood had been the target of numerous bomb threats. The fully armored policemen with their index fingers poised over the triggers of their machine guns and dressed in navy blue anti-terrorism gear added to the post-9/11 feel. It was enough to make you want to pat down your neighbor.

McCain never looks comfortable while others are praising him. He doesn't know what to do with his hands. This is a problem he'll have to get over if he's the nominee. As his fortunes improve, so do the length of the introductions and the number of people introducing him. Pataki and Giuliani stressed to New Yorkers that among Republicans, only McCain could compete in the state during the general election. "No one can bring together intelligent independents and enlightened Democrats like John McCain," Pataki said.

When McCain took to the microphone, he was quick and to the point. "We're confident we're going to do very well," he said of Super Tuesday, an extraordinary admission for the hypersuperstitious candidate. He reiterated the message that he is the only Republican who could cross over and win the Northeast based on his "call to all Americans to [rally for] a cause greater than ourselves." It's not catchy, like Obama's "Yes we can," but the phrase aims at the same kind of national sweep and dates back to McCain's 2000 campaign.

With all the talk of unifying the country, it almost seemed as if McCain had forgotten he was in a battle to woo conservatives, but then he got back on track. When asked about how he would compete with Democrats on the issue of the economy, he said, "The worst thing that could happen to the economy is what Democrats want to do. It's my conservative philosophy versus big government Democratic philosophy."

The press conference ended after only three questions, perhaps a record for brevity in the McCain campaign. The freewheeling schedule of the New Hampshire primary is a thing of the past as McCain crosses the country, races to fund-raisers, and squeezes in media appearances. He's always late to events now, which he hates, but happens as his skeleton staff tries to handle the rush of his new status. After the summer implosion, the McCain team has been running on loyalty with all senior staff working for free, and only the bare minimum of support staff. They have had to cobble together a logistics teams on the fly, which leaves staffers wondering why they can't find their bags and makes events like the one at Grand Central a little disorganized. If McCain wins, the ragged band that travels with him will be able to bring on more help so they can get some sleep and a chance to see their families. And there's another reason they want McCain to do well Tuesday. No one wants to tell him he can't go to Munich.

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