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February 2, 2008

The Showdown On The Right

Do not forsake me, oh my darlin' ...

February 5th has started looking less like a Super Tuesday and more like High Noon. John McCain continues to roll up endorsements from Republican Party establishment figures such as Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charlie Crist, and newspapers like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has conservative talk radio lining up behind him, including explicit endorsements from Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Hugh Hewitt, and the benefit of an anti-endorsement of McCain (and Huckabee) from the most influential of them all, Rush Limbaugh.

The stage is set for a showdown within the GOP, but could both men be Gary Cooper? The Los Angeles Times endorsement doesn't exactly ring with delight over McCain:

At a different moment in American history, we would hesitate to support a candidate for president whose social views so substantially departed from those we hold. But in this election, nothing less than America's standing in the world turns on the outcome. Given that, our choice for the Republican nominee in 2008 is sure and heartfelt. It is John McCain.

McCain opposes abortion and rejects the right of gays and lesbians to marry -- two positions we reject. He supports the war in Iraq, whereas we see this nation's interests better served by a prompt and orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces. But the Arizona senator's conservatism is, if not always to our liking, at least genuine. It reflects his fundamental individualism, spanning his distrust of big government, his support for immigration reform and his insistence on a sound American foreign policy.

For conservatives, the fact that McCain could win these endorsements at all makes them mistrustful. McCain's trumpeting of them doesn't make them feel any better, as one of the complaints heard for years about the Senator was that he cared more for media approval than for the conservative agenda. And let's face it -- neither the Los Angeles Times nor the New York Times represent even center-right values, and neither of them would dream of actually supporting McCain in a general election against either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

But this showdown isn't just about the media. It looks like the first really open GOP primary in decades will test a couple of widespread assumptions. First, does conservative talk radio have the influence that many presume to impact an election? Second, if it does not, what will that say about the future of conservative talk radio?

The answer to the first question will, I think, demonstrate that listeners have never been the monolithic, Clone Army style force that its critics presume. While they appreciate and enjoy the programs, listeners think for themselves. Anyone who spends any time at all listening knows the diversity of opinion unleashed through the call-in lines. Having spent time behind the mike as Hugh's replacement on occasion, I can tell you that the callers are smart, informed, and sometimes have a much different opinion than me or Hugh.

So the answer to the second question follows from there. People will continue to listen to talk radio as they always have -- for entertainment, information, and debate. The hosts will influence the opinions of the listeners, but they're independent and will go their own way.

I expect that the hosts will change some minds before Tuesday. I expect the endorsements of the party's establishment figures to do the same. In the end, most of the voters will make their decision based on their own logic, as they usually do. However, there will be one part of the showdown that may not survive, and that is the affinity of the conservative hosts for the Republican Party as an entity for conservative values. For that, High Noon has been a long time coming, and a McCain win may have some activists feeling very forsaken.


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