Robert Novak

McCain came close Saturday to refuting the claim that he can win votes from everybody but Republicans. He cut into conservative bastions, nearly winning in Greenville (where Bush destroyed him in 2000). He received 25 percent of the evangelical vote, though Huckabee campaigned shamelessly as a man of God, and won by landslide proportions among non-evangelicals.

The older, wiser McCain is more careful and less combative. On election day here, as I sat with other reporters in the rear of McCain's "Straight Talk Express" bus, I asked for the senator's comment on DeLay's statement on Fox the night before. DeLay said he could not vote for McCain even against Hillary Clinton because of grave damage he had done the Republican Party.

Graham, seated nearby, snorted in disbelief. But McCain limited himself to the polite comment that he and Tom DeLay had disagreements. Indeed, the 2000 McCain's emphasis on campaign finance reform and opposition to tax cuts were missing from his 2008 campaigning here. He has adjusted his support for immigration reform to negate the issue.

But McCain has not entirely abandoned "straight talk" in seeking Republican anointment. I asked him Saturday whether he knew of any instance of an economic stimulus such as President Bush's proposed $800-per-taxpayer handout actually averting a recession. He said he did not, and the proposal bothered him.

That kind of answer by McCain has annoyed Republican grandees for years, but it also is what sets him apart from other politicians. It brought to South Carolina last week such endorsers as Sen. Tom Coburn, who maddens his Republican colleagues with his campaign against pork, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, who defied his Democratic Party's orthodoxy on Iraq. Even the GOP elders seem ready to grit their teeth and go along with McCain.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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