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Sunshine State primary to test McCain's appeal to core Republicans

John McCain displayed the armband of a soldier killed in Iraq at a stop yesterday in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. The senator has led in some recent Florida polls. John McCain displayed the armband of a soldier killed in Iraq at a stop yesterday in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. The senator has led in some recent Florida polls. (Mark Wallhesier/reuters)
Email|Print| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / January 23, 2008

PENSACOLA, Fla. - At a rally here yesterday, John McCain played up his ties to the port city where he did his pilot training. "Part of my paycheck every month was devoted to helping the economy of Pensacola," said McCain, who lived in Florida at various times during his naval career.

The state might not offer as friendly a homecoming to McCain the presidential candidate as it did to the free-spending military bachelor. Next Tuesday's Republican primary will be the first of the season open to only the party's registered voters, who have preferred a candidate other than McCain in each of the three states he has fully contested.

McCain has led in some recent Florida polls, but the vote here will be a particular test for the Arizona senator, who is hoping to build on his close victory Saturday in South Carolina. Florida will be not only the largest state yet to vote - with a demographic diversity foreshadowing the range of states voting on Feb. 5 - but also the biggest test of McCain's appeal to a Republican Party he has never fully won over.

McCain's victories this year have been the result of unusual coalition building, relying on voters drawn to his personal attributes. In South Carolina, McCain performed solidly among evangelical Christians, while overwhelmingly winning both Catholic and proabortion rights voters.

Yet among the party's core conservatives, McCain has yet to show strength. In all states, the bulk of McCain's support comes from self-described liberals and moderates.

"He's doing better among Republicans than he did in 2000," said Whit Ayres, an unaffiliated Republican pollster. "But he's always been exceedingly attractive to independents because of his independent nature."

Those independents have carried McCain in previous contests. In South Carolina, where Democrats and independents constituted one-fifth of the electorate, McCain won the independent vote by 17 percent over Mike Huckabee while falling just short among Republicans, according to exit polls. In both New Hampshire and Michigan, McCain lost to Mitt Romney among Republicans, by a narrow margin in the first case and a large one in the second.

In an appearance in Pensacola yesterday, along the conservative Panhandle heavy with veterans and military installations, a prominent McCain supporter acknowledged that questions endure about the candidate's ideological leanings.

"Is he a conservative? Is he a fiscal conservative?" Senator John Warner, a Virginia Republican, said to a morning crowd. "John McCain couldn't win a popularity contest in the Senate if he tried. Why? Because he cuts too much government spending."

Following yesterday's withdrawal of former senator Fred Thompson, McCain faces challenges on three fronts in winning over Florida Republicans. Romney has targeted his appeal to economic conservatives, Huckabee to religious conservatives, and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani - who has spent by far the most time in the state - has emphasized national security issues.

"All these candidates are running to his right, even Rudy," said Charlie Black, a McCain strategist. "But who cares? He's winning anyway."

In recent days, McCain has been more aggressive in protecting his right flank. But considering his reputation for consistency and his earlier attacks on Romney for having changed positions on key issues, McCain has to be cautious in repositioning himself to win over Republicans, warned Ayres.

In South Carolina and Florida, McCain has emphasized issues of concern to religious voters, reiterating his opposition to child pornography and abortion. McCain, rare among presidential candidates in not scheduling an observance of Martin Luther King Day, acknowledged yesterday's 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade abortion decision before a large crowd in Fort Walton Beach.

"I want to look you in the eye and tell you I am proud of my support for those judges to the bench that strictly interpret the Constitution of the United States and do not legislate from the bench," McCain said.

Above all, McCain continues to emphasize his national security expertise. His first ads in Florida, part of a $1 million campaign launched Monday, are ones used in New Hampshire. They are centered on war: McCain's Vietnam experience and support for President Bush's Iraq strategy.

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