February 5, 2008 may go down in political history as the day Rush Limbaugh lost his grip on Republican voters – and the day Ann Coulter may have lost her grip altogether.

Despite a concerted effort by the conservative chattering class to tar Sen. John McCain as a “liberal” or a “phony Republican,” and Fmr. Gov. Mike Huckabee as a “spoiler” who would “hand the nomination to McCain” by not dropping out, voters were not persuaded to support Mitt Romney to save the party from perdition.

Sen. John McCain won nine of the 21 states holding primaries and caucuses – and perhaps more delegates (they’re still doing the math as of this writing) – to Romney’s seven states and Huckabee’s five states.

In addition to his home state of AZ, McCain won the lion’s share of delegates in CA, IL and OK, which are apportioned by congressional district – as well as delegates in several “winner take all” states, such as MO, NY, NJ, CT and DE. In the Northeastern states, McCain clearly benefitted from having inherited Rudy Giuliani’s moderate base, and across the board he won the votes of those who believe the Iraq war or terrorism are the most critical issues facing the U.S.

But winning CA – the nation’s most populous state – and MO – an important swing state – by huge margins over Romney cements McCain’s front-runner status.

Huckabee swept the South, winning his home state of AR, AL and GA (both winner take all states), TN and WV. Roughly one in two voters in AL, GA and TN are evangelicals or Christian conservatives, and Huckabee got 40 percent of their votes.  Romney ran third in the Southern states, which undercuts his claim that he is the conservative alternative to McCain. As McCain advisor Steve Schmidt put it, “Mitt had a very bad night. You can’t say you’re ‘Mr. Conservative’ and not win the South.”

WV, in particular, proved that a vote for McCain or Huckabee is a vote against Romney: At the state Republican convention, Romney beat Huckabee on the first ballot but failed to get a majority (41 percent to 33 percent). Huckabee won the state with a boost from the McCain delegates (15 percent) who voted for him on the second ballot.

More bad news for Romney: As in FL, McCain was the top choice of the 40 percent of Super Duper Tuesday voters who cited the economy as the nation’s Number One issue. While Romney did better than McCain in AZ and CA amongst voters who cited illegal immigration as the most pressing issue on their minds, McCain won both states handily.

For his part, Romney won his home state of MA, as well as AK, CO, MT and UT (states with significant Mormon populations), MN (a swing state) and ND. Romney had the advantage of having a near-lock on the Mormon vote (9 out of 10 votes in UT, for instance) in these states – plus unusually strong support for Rep. Ron Paul (yes, he’s still in the race) in AK (17 percent), MN (16 percent), MT (25 percent) and ND (21 percent).

Outside the South, Romney won a larger share of the conservative vote than McCain – even in AZ – and Huckabee, with much of this support coming from “late-deciders,” suggesting that the relentless pounding McCain got from Limbaugh and other conservative pundits had some effect amongst hard-core conservatives – but did not sway evangelicals and Christian conservatives who were inclined to support Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, or moderates who don’t rely on Limbaugh to tell them how to vote. 

Early exit poll data also shows that McCain is regarded as the candidate who is most electable, most experienced, most “authentic” and most qualified to be commander in chief.

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog.

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