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And now there are four: Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, and Romney. Of these, one, Huckabee, was wounded badly in South Carolina where exit polls indicated 60% of the primary voters were Evangelical Christians, his strongest suite. Of these, he got only 43%. McCain, for his part, won 27% of the evangelical vote which, with 42 % of the Independents and 51% of those claiming to be moderates, was enough to win the primary.
Of those self-identifying in the exit poles as “very conservative” or “somewhat conservative,” Huckabee won 41% of the former to McCain’s 19%, with McCain winning 32% of the latter to Huckabee’s 30%. Between the two of them, they won 60% of all voters identifying as either “very” or “somewhat” conservative. This is likely to be bad news for Rush Limbaugh, doyen of conservative radio wags, who had proclaimed “I am here to tell you, if either of these guys (Huckabee or McClain) get the nomination, it’s going to destroy the Republican Party. It’s going to change it forever, be the end of it.”
Perhaps. The opposite, actually, seems more likely. What this primary season is putting into sharper focus is the complexity of contemporary conservatism, a political philosophy once seen, and even derided, as overly simplistic. It turns out that conservatives come in a wide rage of sizes and colors, including social, economic, and political. And they don’t always play well together. In fact, of the four left standing after South Carolina, there’s not a one whose conservative credentials have not been impugned by other conservatives.
And that’s just the point. Conservatives of one wing or another in the Republican Party take great pride in disdaining and deriding one or another of the remaining four candidates, all of whom are seen quite clearly as conservative by the moderate and liberal voters amongst us. A national political party, to have any meaning or stature, has to appeal to more than a slice of the political spectrum, no matter how loud it roars or deeply it believes its tenets. If the South Carolina primary turns out to have been a step, even a small one, in the direction of a broader spectrum Republican Party, then it was the party that won certainly as much as McCain.
As for Independents, we won just as big, maybe bigger. We want meaningful choices, candidates who reflect, and respect, a range of views on a range of issues. For many Independents, the hyperpartisanship of the last 10 to 15 years is just what disinclines us to party identification and participation. Thank you, South Carolina.