There were 116 total delegates at stake in the Republican presidential race tonight, and John McCain has apparently won all of them—terrific news for a candidate who began the day about 400 delegates shy of the magic number needed to clinch the nomination.
And two of his primary wins were by convincing margins—in Maryland, where he led Mike Huckabee by a two-to-one margin, and in the District of Columbia, where he was the overwhelming choice of the approximately 4,000 voters who took Republican ballots.
And now the bad news: McCain got a serious scare in Virginia, finally pulling out a high single-digit victory after trailing Huckabee in the early returns. McCain had been the runaway leader—by about 30 points—in polls taken just last week in Virginia.
Huckabee, powered by some momentum from his unexpected weekend successes, very nearly engineered an upset that would have seriously wounded McCain, adding fuel to efforts by some conservatives to find some way—any way—to deny McCain the G.O.P. nomination. Winning Virginia would have radically increased Huckabee’s viability in subsequent G.O.P. contests, raising the possibility of multiple defeats for McCain in the remaining contests.
McCain’s close call can be chalked up to several factors. For one, the Democratic race—as has been the pattern throughout the primary season—attracted far higher participation from independents than the Republican contest, removing from the G.O.P. electorate many moderate voters who would favor McCain. That, in turn, exaggerated the significance of the party’s conservative core—including the religious conservatives who dominate Republican politics in the southwest part of Virginia. McCain also might have been hurt by conservative voters who previously favored Mitt Romney deciding to vote for Huckabee as a way of objecting to McCain’s impending coronation.
Given his reliance on religious conservatives in rural areas, Huckabee’s 41 percent showing in Virginia can not be regarded as a sign of growing appeal. He struggled mightily in the moderate and densely populated suburbs of Washington and was walloped in moderate-minded Maryland. The ceiling that has stymied his campaign all year—he can’t win where religious conservatives don’t hold sway—remains intact.
But there appears to be a ceiling for McCain, as well. Even though he’s been declared the presumptive nominee, self-described conservative voters continue to prefer voting for his hopeless opponent than for McCain. McCain does well enough among conservatives that he is still able to win in most states, thanks to support from moderates and independents.
There will probably be more calls for Huckabee to exit the race after tonight, since he has fallen much further behind in the delegate count. But his Virginia showing will be enough for him to justify pressing ahead.
It’s noteworthy that, while he has drawn some distinctions with McCain in the past week, Huckabee has made sure to use kid gloves. That’s because his continued presence in this campaign can be read as his audition for a spot on the national ticket. By stubbornly attracting more than 40 percent of the vote in states like Virginia and Louisiana, he is making it clear—both to McCain and to hesitant members of the party establishment—that his presence on the ticket in the fall might go a long way toward soothing members of a party base that has never felt much kinship with John McCain.