Something remarkable was brewing as Sen. John McCain continued a tough trudge toward the Republican presidential nomination on Super Tuesday: Democrats finding common ground with Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.
It's one of the stranger phenomena in this already astounding election, both the left and the right in fear that McCain will become the Republican standard bearer heading into November. Democrats worry he's the only candidate who can keep the White House in Republican hands, while some ardent conservatives peg him as a virtual Democrat in disguise.
"As an American, I feel great knowing the Republican nominee will probably be better prepared and more moderate than some of the alternatives,'' said Robin Rorapaugh, a Democratic strategist based in Broward County. "As a Democrat wanting to win, I don't feel so great because McCain has real appeal to independent voters.''
McCain solidified his place as the prohibitive frontrunner Tuesday, though he might have been seriously wounded but for Mike Huckabee helping prevent Mitt Romney from gaining steam in conservative Southern states. McCain had a commanding lead in delegates, however, and fended off Romney's aggressive challenge in California, the biggest delegate prize of all.
The 71-year-old former prisoner of war won handily in delegate-rich blue states including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois, while Romney won his home state of Massachusetts and the Mormon stronghold of Utah, along with several caucus elections.
"Tonight I think we must get used to the idea that we are the Republican Party frontrunner," McCain, the former longshot, told supporters in Phoenix.
Former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee, meanwhile, emerged late Tuesday potentially as a stronger alternative to McCain than the lavishly funded Romney, whose ability to solider on looks precarious.
"A lot of people have been trying to say this is a two-man race. Well, you know what? It is, and we're in it,'' Huckabee crowed from Little Rock, Ark.
The amiable former Baptist preacher provided a giant assist to McCain by splitting the anti-McCain conservative vote in conservative states where Romney had hoped to finish strong. Huckabee won Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and West Virginia's Republican caucus, where the Romney campaign complained of a back-room deal between Huckabee and McCain.
Since his crucial Florida win last week, the race has been McCain's to lose, and horrified conservative pundits are doing all they can to help him do just that.
Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have been hammering McCain day after day on their radio programs, while Coulter even suggested she'll vote for Clinton before voting for McCain.
"Should John McCain capture the nomination as many assume, I believe this general election will offer the worst choices for president in my lifetime,'' James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, lamented in a radio interview Tuesday with Laura Ingraham. "I certainly can't vote for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama based on their virulently anti-family policy positions. If these are the nominees in November, I simply will not cast a ballot for president for the first time in my life."
The very thing that infuriates many conservatives about McCain - an independent streak that pops up on issues ranging from judicial appointments to campaign finance reform to tax cuts - is what makes him so appealing to independents and potentially strong in November. Exit polls Tuesday for the Associated Press showed McCain benefitted heavily from independents voting in GOP primaries and from moderate Republicans, while Romney led among conservatives.
McCain dominated among voters valuing experience and the ability to win in November, while Romney dominated among people looking for a candidate who shared their values.
"His proven ability to appeal to independents because of his track record of breaking with his party's orthodoxy, as much as he doesn't want to discuss that in his primary is clearly going to make him a formidable opponent in the general election,'' said Anita Dunn, a Washington-based Democratic consultant.
Democratic Florida Sen. Bill Nelson had long pegged McCain as the Republican best equipped to win Florida in November but predicted Tuesday that either Clinton or Obama can beat him.
"The country desperately wants a new direction, and the country also wants moderation in politics, and John McCain basically comes from the right-wing political school,'' said Nelson, a Clinton supporter.
Most recent polls show a neck-and-neck general election with McCain, whether Obama is the Democratic nominee or Clinton.
Clinton allies say she has the experience to stand toe to toe with a war hero like McCain, while supporters of the 46-year-old Obama say he has the youth and fresh face to make McCain look like a Washington dinosaur.
"Anyone wrapped in the Bush policies as completely as John McCain is, I think, going to have trouble in a change election. I don't think many people are looking for a third term of the Bush presidency,'' said Miami lawyer Kirk Wagar, Obama's Florida finance chairman.
Still uncertain is whether the vehement anti-McCain sentiments will have serious implications for the general election.
"Against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, 99 percent of conservatives against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama are going to vote for McCain,'' said Tallahassee lobbyist Brian Ballard, who joined Gov. Charlie Crist in campaigning alongside McCain across the country this week. "They've got a bigger problem against John McCain than he does against either of them."
Republican pollster Matt Towery of Atlanta predicted party regulars will get behind a nominated McCain much faster than some high-profile pundits, but Republican turnout is still uncertain.
"We're already seeing the Republican voter turnout is just not as enthusiastic as it is on the Democratic side, and if it does hurt Republican turnout, that could have a real effect in November," Towery said.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.