Updated at 4:45 p.m. on 2/29/08: An earlier version of this story was published before Sen. John McCain responded to a Catholic organization's calls for him to reject Pastor John Hagee's endorsement.
Republican Sen. John McCain is expected to win enough delegates in next week's big GOP winner-take-all Ohio and Texas primaries to quickly wrap up the party's nomination. On that score, there is little suspense.
But while most of the attention has focused on the bitter battle in Tuesday's Democratic primaries, McCain faces a not insignificant challenge next week: avoid embarrassment in Texas, where his main remaining rival, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, has been actively courting the state party's predominantly Christian conservative base.
Though McCain holds a substantial lead in Texas over Huckabee—most recent surveys show him up by about 20 percentage points—some Lone Star State party leaders say that though they expect a McCain win, the margin remains a big question mark. (McCain is expected to win handily in Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont.) Texas Rep. Ron Paul, also still in the race, has been attracting about 10 percent of GOP voters, according to recent polls, and isn't expected to be a factor. He has begun devoting attention to his House re-election run, where he may face a primary challenge.
"There is a sizable anti-McCain protest vote out there," says Texas GOP chair Bill Crocker, who has not endorsed a candidate. "There's a bunch of independent-minded Texans who think they've been taken for granted. And there are also a substantial number of Huckabee supporters."
Huckabee's shoestring campaign has been on the air in Houston and Dallas with an ad touting his conservative bona fides. He has been pushing McCain for a debate (which was never going to happen, the senator's camp says) and yesterday described his own campaign's perseverance as "the most amazing story of this race" but with this caveat: "in the Republican field."
As the party's presumptive nominee, McCain has been struggling to woo social conservatives uncomfortable with his record on issues including immigration, stem cell research, and campaign finance reform. A strong showing in Texas, where he has begun campaigning hard, among those voters could help other core conservatives warm to him, GOP strategists say.
But some of his outreach to evangelicals has backfired. When McCain recently said he was "honored" to get the endorsement of Texas televangelist John Hagee, he offended Catholic voters, who have largely been favorable to him. A prominent Catholic organization asked McCain to reject the endorsement because the pastor has a history of anti-Catholic statements, including asserting that Hitler's Catholic school education produced his anti-Semitic worldview.
McCain, in a statement released late Friday afternoon, declined to reject Hagee's endorsement. But he said that the endorsement does not suggest that "I in turn agree with all of Pastor Hagee's views, which I obviously do not." McCain continued, "I am hopeful that Catholics, Protestants, and all people of faith who share my vision for the future of America will respond to our message of defending innocent life, traditional marriage, and compassion for the most vulnerable in our society."
Congressman Dan Patrick of Houston, a Huckabee backer, said he believes that if McCain bests Huckabee by 10 or 15 percentage points, he can claim a solid win in Texas. "I think he could spin that as 'Texas supports John McCain,' " Patrick said. "If this were still up for grabs, Huckabee would win Texas. But it's a fait accompli, and the governor is out of money.
"In Texas, we're not super excited about McCain," he added. But, like Crocker, Patrick affirmed he would strongly support McCain as the nominee.
And what of Huckabee fatigue among some national party leaders? Has he stayed in too long? The Texas Republicans say no—that the former governor has kept attention on social conservative issues, pressured McCain to focus on those issues, and guaranteed that the GOP race would continue to get some media coverage. "There are many of us in the party who feel we haven't had a voice on conservative issues, and we want to be sure that Senator McCain knows we are still alive and kicking on the conservative right," Patrick said. "Continuing to have that voice [through Huckabee] is not intended to be harmful or disrespectful."
But Crocker cautioned that if Huckabee stays in the race much longer—especially if McCain hits the magic delegate number of 1,191, he risks damaging the party's presumptive standard-bearer. "The last thing we need is an injured candidate going into the general election," he said.
So for McCain, the expected scenario is he sweeps on Tuesday and picks up enough delegates to close the book on the race. But best case? He does all that and wins big in Texas, pulling social conservatives—some perhaps kicking and screaming—along with him into the general election.
As for Huckabee, conservative leader Grover Norquist of the American Taxpayers Union offered this advice. "He either needs to go run for Senate in Arkansas and become a real national figure, or he needs to figure out how to run a different campaign that demonstrates the breadth of votes he can get." If he doesn't? He'll be remembered as a "presidential candidate who didn't work."