February 13, 2008

McCain Solidifies Lock On Nomination

In the end, the Mike Huckabee surge in Virginia fell far short of victory. John McCain swept the Potomac Primaries last night, winning by nine in Virginia and winning among conservatives in Maryland. The delegate count now makes his nomination inevitable:

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) swept Republican primaries in Virginia, Maryland and the District last 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 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 Old Town Alexandria, McCain echoed Democrat Barack Obama, saying he was "fired up and ready to go." But he also hinted at a possible face-off with the senator from Illinois in the fall, saying Obama's message of hope is not enough.

"Hope, my friends, is a powerful thing," he told the crowd, sounding like Obama's Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), when he added: "To encourage a country with only rhetoric, rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people, is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude."

Huckabee won self-professed conservatives in Virginia, mostly thanks to a strong showing in the western end of the state. He lost among the same demographic in Maryland, however. The shift appears to be from former Romney voters, but it simply wasn't enough to derail McCain. Huckabee lost Virginia by a much wider margin than he lost South Carolina, and he's running out of states where strong evangelical showings are possible.

In fact, even if he had a chance to win the rest of the states, it still couldn't keep McCain from winning the nomination. Huckabee said last night that his strategy is to get to the convention with the nomination still open, and hope to win an open convention. Since the rest of the states allocate delegates proportionally, the mathematics are all but impossible.

We now have 1,049 delegates left to win, and McCain needs only 380 more to clinch the nomination. Huckabee would have to win 670 of the delegates left in the primaries in order to block McCain. That means Huckabee would have to win more than 65% of the vote in every single state left to contest, while McCain would have to take less than 35% of the vote in every single state.

And that's just to force an open convention, not to win the nomination. Huckabee hasn't won more than 45% in any state, and he didn't get to 45% in Virginia last night, either. Virginia's winner-take-all primary was his last hope of affecting McCain's trajectory in any meaningful way, and he lost by nine -- as I had predicted earlier in the day.

McCain has already started shifting his focus to the general election. He offered nothing but kindness to Huckabee, but began challenging Barack Obama. Expect to hear McCain repeatedly dismiss Obama's platitudes on "hope" and get him into a debate on specific policies. Obama will lose that fight, but if he doesn't engage McCain, he'll look like an empty suit. McCain has a lot more time to focus on Obama than the reverse, and he can do some damage to Obama's momentum among independents while Obama tries to finish off Hillary Clinton.

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