Va. fight shows McCain still has work to do

The Washington PostFebruary 13, 2008 

— Sen. John McCain of Arizona swept Republican primaries in Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C. Tuesday night, defeating former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and adding to his vast delegate lead in the race to become his party's presidential nominee.

But even as he dominated the so-called Potomac Primary, McCain lost conservatives in Virginia, as he has across the South and parts of the Midwest -- trailing Huckabee among that group and evangelicals as he attempts to unite a fractured Republican Party behind his candidacy.

Speaking to a few hundred supporters at a victory rally in Alexandria, Va., McCain said he was "fired up and ready to go."

McCain did not directly address his challenge among conservatives but said: "I will not confine myself to the comfort of speaking only to those who agree with me. I will make my case to all the people."

Huckabee on Tuesday tapped into conservative discontent about McCain's moderate positions on immigration, campaign finance, taxes and energy. Among conservative voters in Virginia, Huckabee won by large margins, according to exit polls, though McCain carried the group in Maryland.

In Little Rock, Huckabee again refused to concede the race to his rival. He said the results showed "there's still a real sense in the Republican Party, a desire to have a choice, a desire to make sure voters who want a solid conservative, absolutely pro-life candidate still exist." Huckabee added that "the nomination is not secure until somebody has 1,191 delegates. That has not yet happened."

Still, Huckabee acknowledged that he could no longer become the party's standard-bearer by winning delegates in the coming contests. Instead, he said victory "may have to happen at a convention."

"We're disappointed, but we're not knocked out," Huckabee told reporters.

Despite trailing far behind in the delegate race, Huckabee has spent the past 10 days embarrassing the senator with election victories, including taking two of three contests Saturday.

But McCain's wins Tuesday night, fueled by huge vote totals in Northern Virginia and in Maryland's Washington suburbs, gave him fresh ammunition to claim the prize he has sought twice this decade.

In his speech, McCain praised Huckabee's skills as a "communicator and advocate" and said "he certainly keeps things interesting -- a little too interesting at times tonight, I must confess."

McCain's reputation as a senator unafraid to challenge President Bush helped him win big among moderate voters, according to exit polls. But those same traits may have cost him support in rural areas, especially in Southwest Virginia, western Maryland and Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Maryland and Virginia voters who said their most important issue was choosing a candidate who shared their values preferred Huckabee by about 2 to 1. He also won big among evangelical voters and among those who call themselves very conservative.

Those voters turned out in large numbers Tuesday. About a third of GOP voters in Virginia and Maryland called themselves very conservative, up from 18 percent in the Republican primary in 2000.

Where's the love?

Virginia House Speaker William Howell, Huckabee's highest-profile backer in the state, said the results show that McCain "has some work to do to convince Republicans and independents that he's the man. ... There are a lot of people still searching."

Robert Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said: "Conservatives have not been ready to put their imprimatur on McCain. Inevitability has not translated into affection, and that is a continuing challenge for him."

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