WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Mississippi's top two Republicans took sharply different views of Sen. John McCain as he moved toward their party's presidential nomination. Gov. Haley Barbour went on the Fox News Channel as primary returns came in Tuesday night to suggest the time was near to stop the contest and accept McCain as the winner. A few days earlier, Sen. Thad Cochran declared that his colleague from Arizona was not fit to be president.
Barbour's words were in character; Cochran's were not. A lifelong professional politician and former Republican national chairman, Barbour was following GOP tradition of closing ranks once it becomes obvious who will be nominated. During 35 years in Congress, the soft-spoken, gentlemanly Cochran seldom has uttered a harsh word about anybody. So, why did he tell the Boston Globe last week "the thought of (McCain) being president sends a cold chill down my spine"? Because Cochran is the Senate's reigning king of pork, and McCain would be the most implacable foe of pork ever nominated for president.
Anathemas against McCain pronounced by conservative radio talk show hosts leading up to Super Tuesday were genuine protests against his frequent ideological deviations from Republican orthodoxy and had nothing to do with pork barrel spending. Their anguished assaults did not slow down McCain or help their suddenly chosen favorite, Mitt Romney. The worry ahead for McCain is that politicians such as Cochran may torpedo the presidential nominee's campaign and depress the party base for November.
In belatedly endorsing Romney on Jan. 23, a week before the decisive Florida primary, Cochran called McCain "erratic" and "hot headed." That sounded so little like good old Thad Cochran that many Republicans guessed he must have been misquoted. But he stood by the "cold chill" quote, going live on MSNBC last Friday to say McCain "serving as president really does concern me."
Unlike Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity, Cochran does not object to McCain for ideological reasons. Their lifetime American Conservative Union (ACU) voting records are in the same range -- 82.3 percent for McCain, 80.3 percent for Cochran. They each were marked down by the ACU for voting against a border fence and voting for embryonic stem cell research.
When I asked a close Mississippi associate of Cochran's what was bothering him, he had a one-word answer: "earmarks." Cochran's and McCain's votes have gone separate ways on spending limitations, earmarks and an unsuccessful attempt to stop spending to relocate a freight line in Mississippi. The nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense ranks Cochran as the No. 1 porkster in Congress, collecting $774 million worth of earmarks in 2007. He has earmarked over $88 million for Army Corps of Engineers projects in the Yazoo Basin, including $10 million for a flood control plan opposed by environmentalists.
McCain brandishes a crucifix in the face of his party's earmarking Draculas. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the intrepid anti-pork crusader who has a 100 percent ACU record, has endorsed McCain. While House and Senate Republican leaders have fudged on earmarks, McCain says flatly that as president he will veto any bill containing earmarks. That pleases rank-and-file conservative voters, who are told by radio talkers that McCain is no better than Hillary Clinton.
McCain strategists believe that voters who listen regularly to Rush Limbaugh never were likely to vote for the senator on Tuesday. The McCain camp was much more concerned by some $10 million that Romney poured into California during the last week in heavy media buys that trashed McCain as a non-conservative. McCain spent almost nothing there but won by 190,000 votes in a primary limited to registered Republicans, who were less bothered by him than fellow senators and radio talkers.
Nevertheless, McCain's advisers would like him to reach out to right-wing activists today (Thursday) when he addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which he skipped last year. But it's not easy for the tough old naval aviator to be nice to critics. On Super Tuesday, he was jovial on NBC's "Today" program until the interviewer mentioned Cochran's remarks. The people "criticizing me," said McCain, "are not the most respected members of the United States Senate, to be honest with you."