The Arizona senator’s last remaining major rival, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, made good on his promise to drop out of the GOP race when another candidate reached the nomination-clinching 1,191-delegate mark. The decision left McCain the presumptive nominee, a fact highlighted by an expected endorsement by President Bush Wednesday.
McCain can now begin his general election campaigning while the Democratic candidates continue to navigate a protracted nominating race.
“Our campaign must be — and will be — more than another tired debate of false promises, empty sound-bites, or useless arguments from the past that address not a single American’s concerns for their family’s security,” McCain told supporters in Dallas after his string of victories Tuesday night secured the GOP nod.
For McCain, success came on his second try for the White House. He lost the GOP nomination to President Bush in 2000 after being derailed in South Carolina — a state that helped propel him to the front of the GOP pack this election year.
But the string of victories comes after an uncertain summer during which McCain survived staffing shakeups and severe fundraising shortfalls.
He managed to stave off the more conservative Huckabee, the better-funded Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the television star and former Sen. Fred Thompson and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — known internationally from his leadership after Sept. 11.
“His candidacy turned out to have greater resilience than anybody expected,”
Judy Woodruff said of McCain on Tuesday’s NewsHour. “He was written off for dead, for gone last summer. People were saying ‘we’re not going to hear from John McCain again. This is history.’ But he, through … perseverance, he stayed on the campaign trail. He was traveling around with no aides. And slowly but surely, one day at a time and $1 at a time he built himself back up to a place where, you know, people had to take him seriously. It really is an extraordinary story.”
On Wednesday, McCain is scheduled to appear with the President Bush to receive the endorsement of the man that beat him in a brutal primary campaign eight years ago.
McCain pledged a “respectful, determined and convincing case to the American people” in the general election campaign. As McCain spoke, supporters raised an enormous banner bearing “1191”, the magic number of delegates needed to win the GOP nomination, to serve as a backdrop for his victory celebration in Dallas.
“The most important race begins,” he said in an Associated Press interview, looking ahead to a fall campaign against either Obama or Clinton, with the country fighting an unpopular war and on the brink of a possible recession.
With the front-loading of this year’s nominating calendar in mind, McCain’s clinching of the nomination comes earlier than the most recent contests. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry locked the Democratic nomination on March 2 — the earliest in recent history. In 2000, Bush and former Vice President Al Gore clinched their parties’ nominations on March 14.
Huckabee conceded defeat on an upbeat note, citing the stunning victory in the leadoff Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 and a string of wins across the South as proof his equally unlikely campaign had been well fought.
“My commitment to him [McCain] and the party is to do everything possible to unite our party, but more important to unite our country so that we can be the best we can be,” Huckabee said during his concession speech in Irving, Texas.
Last month, Time magazine’s Mark Halperin wrote that McCain has plenty to do while the Democrats continue to battle over their nomination. The senator has time to rest, raise money, plan the national convention, rebuild bridges with the more conservative wing of the Republican Party and, of course, pick his running mate — an issue that’s sure to be a concern for the man who would be the oldest person elected to his first term.
Analysts have wasted no time in assessing the field of possible contenders for the second spot on the GOP ticket.
Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian, told the AP that the most reassuring person McCain could pick in the Republican Party would be retired Gen. Colin Powell, a former secretary of state and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell, 70, has said he does not want the job but Brinkley said GOP party elders might be able to persuade him.
Other possibilities include Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, 51, who could help McCain win the battleground state of Florida in the November election, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, 47, who could do the same in Minnesota.
There are plenty of other names: Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has said she does not want it; South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham; Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour; Texas Gov. Rick Perry; and former White House budget director Rob Portman, a former member of the U.S. Congress from Ohio.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said McCain’s choice may well depend on whether Democrat Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton wins the nomination.
“A vice presidential nominee against one might not be the best choice if you’re running against the other,” Ayres told the AP. “If it’s Clinton, it might place a higher premium on a woman. If it’s Obama, it might place a higher premium on an African-American.”