The EFM Feature

James P. Pinkerton
March 14, 2006

Senator’s fifth place in GOP presidential straw poll proves he’s only the candidate of the mainstream media

A funny thing happened on Sen. John McCain’s path to the White House – he was mugged in Memphis.

Far away from his real support base, which is Washington, D.C., the Arizona Republican finished a distant fifth in a straw poll of grassroots activists at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference on Saturday.

McCain’s weak showing is a reminder that the illusion of a political juggernaut, promoted by reporters and Beltway ideologues, is not the same thing as a real juggernaut – the kind that rolls all the way to nomination and election. The proof is in the pudding: Of 1,427 ballots cast in Memphis, McCain won a measly 4.6 percent.

Yet the Mainstream Media (MSM) mostly buried this news. One reason is that the straw-voting took place on Saturday night, after Sunday’s newspapers had been mostly put to bed. But there’s another reason: MSM-ers like McCain. Sunday’s Washington Post, for example, offered this McCain-as-frontrunner headline: “McCain Tests New Road to Nomination/2000′s GOP Rebel Incorporates Support for Bush Into Quest for Change.” From a McCainiac point of view, the wording couldn’t get much better: He’s on the way to be being nominated, he’s independent, but oh, yes, he also likes the president.

Only 19 paragraphs into the Post story did readers learn of the straw poll, which home-state Sen. Bill Frist won with 37 percent. Frist’s victory might not have been a surprise, but what was surprising – which is to say, newsworthy – was that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Yankee, came in second down there in Dixie.

One can say that it’s only a straw poll, two years before the real thing in the Iowa caucuses. But an important point can be made: The activists who showed up in Memphis – the kind of folks who festoon themselves with buttons touting candidates and causes – were a lot like the activists who will show up in Iowa and the other key states. That’s McCain’s big problem: The elites adore him, or at least respect him, but the activists, who actually pick the nominee, don’t seem to like him very much.

Many activists dislike McCain for the same reason that the MSM like him: The senior senator from Arizona has criticized such conservative icons as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Some will say that Falwell and Robertson deserve criticism, but many GOPers thought McCain was too eager to tell reporters what they wanted to hear.

In addition, McCain has broken with Republican orthodoxy on such issues as tobacco, global warming and campaign finance. He even has said that he supports a cabinet-level department for campaign-finance enforcement. Obviously the likes of Jack Abramoff need to be punished, Republicans might respond, but the disgraced lobbyist was nailed under the existing rules – and so how many more rules and rule-makers do we need?

It’s worth pausing over the cabinet department idea for a bit: Imagine President McCain hiring an additional “attorney general” who would be out to make a name for himself or herself by unleashing strike forces of government lawyers who would monitor and scrutinize all elections – which is to say, monitor and scrutinize free speech.

Meanwhile, McCain’s Democratic allies in Congress, seizing on the news generated by this new department, agitate for full public financing of all politics. It’s easy to see MSMers and lefty activists loving this power-prospect, but do conservatives really yearn to see the 44th president creating a Department of Campaign Prosecution, to be followed, eventually, by a Department of Socialized Politics?

The answer from Memphis was loud and clear: No to McCain. Grover Norquist, president of the grassroots-y Americans for Tax Reform, who has crossed swords with McCain on issues ranging from taxes to campaign finance, has blunt advice for the senator: “Spend less time on ‘Meet the Press’ and more time speaking to Reagan Republican issues.”

That’s good advice. But for McCain, the MSM candidate, it might be too late.

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.

About Charles Mitchell

EFM's resident Yankee, Charles Mitchell, works in the non-profit arena in his native Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Charissa, live near the state capital of Harrisburg with their daughter, Adeline, and are members of a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America.

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