Tuning out Rush Limbaugh

Super Tuesday: McCain and Huckabee's victories last night prove that the giants of the conservative movement are out of touch with the electorate

The candidate of the conservative political establishment saw his hopes of winning the Republican nomination expire yesterday.

Mitt Romney's poor showing in the Super Tuesday contests is a welcome development. It demonstrates that the GOP's grassroots supporters - always more sophisticated political animals than liberal caricatures are prone to suggest - are willing to stand up to the hectoring bullies of talk radio and the right-wing political world.

On the surface, Romney's performance seemed halfway decent. He won seven states to John McCain's nine and Mike Huckabee's five. But two of his victories came in states with which he has a long personal association - Massachusetts, where he was governor, and Utah, where he salvaged a troubled Winter Olympics in 2002 and where the political and cultural landscape is dominated by his Mormon co-religionists.

Of Romney's other wins, several were notched up in sparsely populated states of little strategic importance, including North Dakota, Montana and Alaska. Overall, the results were nowhere near good enough to give him a realistic chance of emerging as the party's candidate for president.

By contrast, McCain virtually assured himself of the nomination with wins in big states like California, New York and Illinois. And Huckabee was triumphant across the south, defeating McCain and relegating Romney to a distant third in places like Alabama and Georgia as well as his home state of Arkansas.

McCain and Huckabee's achievements came in the teeth of fervent opposition from supposed giants of the conservative movement.

In mid-January, talk show host Rush Limbaugh told his 13 million listeners: "If either of these two guys get the nomination, it's going to destroy the Republican party. It's going to change it forever, be the end of it. A lot of people aren't going to vote. You watch." Those of us who watched last night only saw Republicans favouring the two alleged destroyers over Romney, whom Limbaugh consistently favours.

McCain, as the would-be frontrunner, has incited special wrath from the right-wing talkers. Sean Hannity, who has endorsed Romney, said of the Arizona senator: "I don't trust him. He spends too much time talking with liberals like Ted Kennedy." Laura Ingraham went further, proclaiming: "There is no way in hell I could pull the lever for John McCain."

These kinds of criticisms are echoed, in only fractionally more civilized tones, by icons of the conservative political establishment.

In January, Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, told Fox News that McCain "has done more to hurt the Republican party than any elected official I know of". Rick Santorum, the ultra-conservative former senator from Pennsylvania, weighed in with the comment that "almost at every turn on domestic policy, John McCain was not only against us but leading the charge on the other side".

The irony in all of this is that McCain actually is a staunch conservative on many issues, including abortion, and is not above the occasional pander to the hard-right himself. (Last year, he seemed to back off harsh criticisms he made of religious right leaders during his 2000 presidential bid, for example.) But his strong performance yesterday indicates that grassroots Republicans are, in fact, willing to tolerate his departures from party orthodoxy. They continue to admire his heroism as a POW during the Vietnam war. And they still seem him as the most electable candidate in a general election.

Huckabee's showing yesterday was just as remarkable, perhaps even more so. The former governor of Arkansas is notoriously cash-strapped. Recent figures showed his campaign to have spent around $7m, in contrast with Romney's $86m. He is, moreover, treated with open contempt by the conservative establishment. Not a single Republican senator has endorsed his candidacy. And Limbaugh is not his only enemy in talk radio - Ingraham described him in December as a "big loser" because of his alleged liberalism (and "mumbo-jumbo") on the issue of immigration.

Huckabee's vote-getting capacity is not purely a by-product of his social conservatism and affable campaigning style. He has also adroitly tapped into the resentment felt by many working-class conservatives who feel - with more than a little justification - that they have been used as electoral cannon fodder by the Republican elite and received little in return.

"A lot of the Wall Street Republicans ... don't really like the Wal-Mart Republicans, and that's who I represent," Huckabee said a few days ago. "I represent rank-and-file people that aren't the powerful. They may not be the swells that go to the nice cocktail parties, but there are a whole lot of people in this party that if they get abandoned and they get left out, it's going to be real hard for Republicans to win this fall. And I think people ought to be thinking very seriously about dumping a lot of the folks that gave the Republicans their victories."

Limbaugh ran that entire quote on his show on Monday. "Here comes the class envy and the populism again," he vented. "Governor Huckabee has it 180 degrees out of phase ... . The idea that Huckabee represents them is what's crazy."

The 190,000 people who gave Huckabee victory in Tennessee didn't seem to think it all that crazy. Nor the 230,000 people who put him over the top in Alabama. Nor the 326,000 who delivered a win for him in Georgia.

Whether or not one agrees with their political views, it is undeniable that those people stood up for themselves against a hurricane of indignation and scorn. So too did those who supported McCain. Together, they formed a pincer movement that crushed Romney, the establishment darling who sought to buy the election.

Good for them.

For more blogs on the US elections, click here.


Niall Stanage

The GuardianTramp

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