Robert Novak

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.

Robert Novak

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

©Creators Syndicate