West Virginia McCain camp pulls a fast one, gets the spotlight
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For a brief, shining moment yesterday, tiny West Virginia's beleaguered Republican party became a player on the fields of Super Tuesday.
The Mountain State's GOP can only boast 30 delegates -- a puny number compared to New York, California and the nearly two dozen other states holding primaries and caucuses on this most pivotal of days -- but by awarding 18 of them to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at its first-ever convention earned the party lots of coverage on cable, national attention and, perhaps most importantly, a big morale boost.
"We were kind of hoping for that," said Dr. Douglas McKinney, the blunt-spoken head of the Republican State Committee, who could barely suppress a grin at the rows of cameras lined up on a riser in the back of the Charleston Civic Center's hall. "We got CNN, we got Fox, we got 'em all."
Indeed, at around 2:45 p.m., while voters across the nation were still heading to the polls, Mr. Huckabee's name flashed on cable news screens as the day's first winner in West Virginia -- the unexpected beneficiary of a behind-the-scenes battle between supporters of Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who was hoping he could claim a psychological boost from a victory here but who lost instead to Mr. Huckabee in a nail-bitingly close second ballot, 567 to 522.
After Mr. McCain fared poorly in the first round of balloting -- which Mr. Romney won, 464 to 375 for Mr. Huckabee and 176 to Arizona Sen. John McCain, but not by a wide enough margin under party rules to declare victory -- fierce behind-the-scene maneuvering erupted, with Mr. McCain's supporters agreeing to switch their votes to Mr. Huckabee, much to the fury of Romney officials.
"These are the juvenile antics of a morally bankrupt campaign." said John McCutcheon, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign. "They're spoilers who take the responsibility of being Republicans much less seriously than their own personal gratification. They're tactically distorting the outcome of the vote for fun."
Gary Abernathy, a seasoned Charleston political operator who was recruited to build a last-ditch McCain organizing effort after his candidate, former Tennessee Sen. Fred D. Thompson, dropped out last month, admitted that he and other McCain supporters hatched the scheme when it became apparent that he wouldn't win the delegates.
"The best scenario for the McCain campaign was not a Romney victory today," he said. "Mitt Romney spent a ton of money in this state for over a year while John McCain obviously ran more of a grass-roots effort which will pay off everywhere in the country."
Still, this was never a crowd that would have been Mr. McCain's to win anyway, added Robert Rupp, political science professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College. A delegate survey by his students found that 58 percent considered themselves evangelical Christians, and the same number identified themselves as conservative.
Indeed, numerous delegates said they prefer a small-government approach and expressed unhappiness with Mr. McCain's acknowledgement that global warming may need to be addressed -- which many here see as tantamount to destruction of the state's coal industry. They also cite his energetic legislative record, which includes campaign finance reform, a vote against drilling in Alaska's wilderness and a vote against Bush tax cuts.
"What don't I like about him?" asked Mark Ankrom, a 29-year-old delegate from Huntington and an avid Huckabee supporter. "McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy, McCain-Lieberman," he said referring to legislation on campaign finance, immigration and global warming that Mr. McCain had engineered with Democratic Senate colleagues.
"Mr. Romney reflects more accurately the conservative values of this state," added Christopher Wakim, a Wheeling businessman who supports Mr. Romney. "He's pro-life, anti-taxes, and he recognizes, perhaps more than any other candidates, the importance of coal to this region's future."
Regardless of yesterday's wrangling -- in which the actual winner may not have won at all, the also- ran will go on to fight another day and the loser may go on to be the party's nominee -- the big victors in Charleston may be the members of the West Virginia Republican executive committee, the very ones who cooked up the idea of a convention two years ago, only to be greeted with considerable skepticism and some derision from some within the party.
It was a strategy born of necessity. After suffering widespread electoral defeat across the state in 2006, when almost no Republican challenger won elected office, party officials thought a convention would energize the GOP faithful and give the state an earlier voice in the presidential nominating process.
West Virginia Republicans will choose nine more delegates in a primary May 13, the same day the Democrats choose theirs.
Yesterday's convention was made up of 1,200 delegates -- about half of them party officials and office-holders, the other half average citizens selected by county caucuses, some of them through Internet voting.
Early on, some complained the new format was heavily weighted toward party insiders, disenfranchising the rank and file. Some complained of inadequate publicity and a requirement that they vote either online or during a county convention for at-large delegates. And when balloting began in early January to select the convention's delegates, only 2,000 of the state's 350,000 Republican voters participated. But defenders said the process was open to every West Virginia voter.
"Everybody had an opportunity to run for delegate," said Mark Scott, a 39-year-old insurance agent from Elkins. "This kind of gathering means that party members can disagree and debate, and then walk out of the convention more unified than before."
While it's not clear that really happened today -- the sour feelings about Mr. Huckabee's victory remained palpable among Romney supporters afterwards as delegates headed home -- the convention gamble, at least, seems to have paid off.
Not only was the meeting heavily covered by the national media, three of the four Republican candidates -- Mr. Romney, Mr. Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas -- addressed the convention early this morning to loud, raucous applause. Mr. Romney strenuously appealed to the delegates's desire to be relevant, noting -- over shrieks by Ron Paul supporters -- that "West Virginia has a chance to lead Super Tuesday, has a chance to make a difference, to tell the rest of America what the new direction for our country and party will be."
Mr. McCain was represented by former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, whose southern good old-boy charm nonetheless didn't win over many delegates.
"We're electing a president, not a fraternity leader and not a mannequin," Mr. Roemer thundered, in a not-so-subtle reference to Mr. Romney. "And what's the first thing a president has to do when he gets into office?"
"Be a Republican!" Someone shouted from the audience.
At day's end, some longtime political watchers were marveling at what transpired.
"For Huckabee, this gives them a major, unexpected win on Super Tuesday, and for the McCain people it gives Romney an unexpected embarrassment," said Mr. Rupp, the West Virginia Wesleyan professor.
Not only that, but the new convention format -- for all of its flaws and potential for controversy -- may give presidential candidates a reason to come to West Virginia in February.
"The irony is we're a small state with only 18 delegates, but we've become a factor in this race. No one ever used to pay attention to us, since our primary was in the vast wasteland of May, when it was all over, but now," he added, sounding almost disbelieving, "West Virginia has become one more impediment to Romney winning the nomination, and John McCain winning it. Who would have thought it?"
First Published February 6, 2008 12:24 am