John Dickerson was online on Feb. 7 to chat with readers about this article. Read the transcript.
If Karl Rove thought claims about the conservative crackup were premature, the voters didn't listen. The early election results Tuesday suggested the GOP is still deeply split.
This week, conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and Ann Coulter all rallied against John McCain, telling their listeners to back Mitt Romney. Forget Huckabee, they've argued, a vote for him only ensures that the apostate McCain will win. On Tuesday, James Dobson, the religious broadcaster, blasted McCain: "I am convinced Senator McCain is not a conservative and, in fact, has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are. He has at times sounded more like a member of the other party."
These loud voices of protest were thoroughly ignored. Conservatives did not rally to Mitt Romney. They rallied to Mike Huckabee, who won Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Alabama. "A lot of people have tried to say that this is a two-man race," he said after winning, "You know what? It is, and we're in it."
That was a stretch, but Huckabee could argue Romney was out of the running because in the ideological and geographic heart of the Republican Party, Romney could not make a scratch, just as he couldn't in the South Carolina primary. In Arkansas, Tennessee, and Alabama, he didn't even come in second. For Romney, the problem is not just that he couldn't win the delegates, but that he could not make the sale to Republicans at the heart of his party. He has spent money, bought organization, and now has the firepower of revered conservative voices behind him, and he still can't win.
This is the worst possible outcome for those who want party unity or to stop John McCain. While Romney was denied, McCain won New York, Oklahoma, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, and Missouri and racked up delegates, putting him closer to the nomination. The states at play in future contests are only going to get better for him and worse for Romney.
Despite winning some Southern contests, Huckabee isn't going to win the nomination. However, the thorough repudiation of those who would speak for conservatives no doubt delights him, since they have regularly targeted him, as well. Perhaps Huckabee will get his own radio show.
Exit polls nevertheless show that McCain's problems with conservatives run deep. He lost among conservatives in almost every state except Connecticut and New Jersey, where he split them evenly with Romney. McCain also lost conservatives even in the states he won. Conservatives went for Romney in New York and Illinois. "Hard to do well with conservatives when everyone with a microphone is beating hell out of us," says a top McCain aide. While the conservative voices weren't enough to stop McCain, or to elect their guy, tonight they were enough to bruise him.