PHOENIX (Reuters) - John McCain has vaulted from long shot to the front-runner to win the Republican nomination for U.S. president. The reason? Voter confidence he can beat the eventual Democratic candidate in November’s election, according to interviews with some of his supporters.
McCain defeated close rival Mitt Romney comfortably in a hard-fought nomination vote in Florida this week, giving him crucial momentum going into the big round of votes on “Super Tuesday.”
Twenty-four states are holding nominating contests for one or both parties on February 5 to pick their candidate for the November election.
Allies and voters said that key to the Arizona senator’s success has been convincing supporters that he has the greatest chance of winning in November and handing Republicans another term in the White House when two-term President George W. Bush steps down.
Voters said McCain, who is a fiscal and social conservative but who has crossed swords with his own party over issues such as immigration reform, was the Republican’s best bet for winning over independents and even some Democrats.
Those votes could be crucial to a Republican win in the general election.
“There’s no ifs, ands or buts, the election will be decided by independents, and he has the greatest chance of winning their votes,” said Todd Hutcheson, an Orlando real estate dealer and one-time Rudy Giuliani supporter, who voted for McCain in Florida.
McCain’s ability to draw support from beyond his party was seen on the campaign trail across Florida, where he was joined at one packed rally by Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat who was re-elected in 2006 as an independent after losing the Democratic primary to an anti-Iraq war candidate.
“I’m not going to let party labels stand between me and doing what I think is best for America,” Lieberman told Reuters as he left the rally in Lady Lake, Florida, on Sunday.
The race to win the Republican nomination is very far from over — with McCain, Romney, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul battling across the country next Tuesday — and McCain faces formidable obstacles in any race for the White House.
He is hawkish in his support for an unpopular war in Iraq, calling withdrawal “surrender,” a stance that is likely a turn-off for a number of independent voters and otherwise dissident Democrats weary of the nearly 5-year-old conflict.
But some of his other stances, while giving him appeal outside the Republican core, make him unpopular in his own party. McCain, who has been a U.S. senator for more than 20 years, was beaten in 2000 for the Republican presidential nomination in a bitter battle with Bush.
McCain faces strong opposition from Republican conservatives who dislike his opposition to bedrock Republican positions, such as opposing Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, sponsoring campaign finance reform and supporting an overhaul of immigration laws.
Conservative talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh rail against him on widely syndicated shows, and former Republican House of Representatives leader Tom DeLay, for one, has said he would not vote for McCain in a general election.
But some prominent Republicans within the McCain camp believe that they will come into line if the senator continues to gain momentum on Super Tuesday.
“Electability is a very big issue,” supporter John Lehman, a former secretary of the Navy, told Reuters last week.
“A huge majority of Republicans want to win, and they would rather have victory than total litmus test purity,” he added.
On polling day in Florida, McCain was confident of his ability to win over that support in the months ahead.
“Oh, they’ll rally behind me,” he said. “Most Republicans respect the process, most Republicans say ‘he’s the nominee of our party ... I’m going to get behind our candidate to make sure a Democrat doesn’t come in.’ It’s a fairly natural evolution.”
Editing by Frances Kerry and Eric Beech