Virginia Senator and Alexandria resident John Warner (R) recently hit the campaign trail with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), lending the presidential hopeful his significant political gravitas and helping him shore up support among traditional Republican voters.
Warner appeared at some of McCain’s campaign stops in South Carolina the weekend before its primary on January 19. Last weekend, he stumped with McCain in Florida, which holds its primary Tuesday.
At a campaign event in Florida, Warner, who was unavailable to comment for this article, stressed that McCain is the best prepared to be commander in chief from day one.
“You need somebody who doesn’t need any on the job training when he walks into the White House and that’s John McCain,” he said in Pensacola gymnasium, according to news reports. “John understands the challenges and threats that face America today and really have never faced any other president.”
The Virginia senator knew McCain’s father from their time in the military. When McCain was recovering from being tortured in Vietnam as a prisoner of war, Warner, who was then Secretary of the Navy, helped him secure a spot at the National War College even though he had not yet earned the rank of commander, a typical prerequisite for the program.
Warner surprised many political observers when he endorsed McCain nearly a year ago, when McCain’s campaign was struggling.
As the former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and one of the Senate’s most respected members, Warner’s significant political sway could shore up McCain’s support among Republicans heading into Florida on Tuesday and beyond.
“I think it’s a help for him in a couple of ways,” Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said. “The first is Warner is widely admired and admired among Republicans. The second is he’s seen as a patriot and an expert on defense and international matters.”
Moreover, Ornstein noted, it reinforces McCain’s message that he is more qualified than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, McCain’s primary rival for the nomination and a career businessman, on military and national security issues.
McCain is currently in a tight race in the Florida primary that could heavily influence how he fares on Super Tuesday (Feb. 5), when 22 states will hold their primaries. Recent polls show the race is too close to call, so McCain is looking for all the support he can garner, especially among traditional Republicans who have been skeptical of his conservative credentials in the past. Warner helps him accomplish just that.
“Warner has a reputation as a moderate but it’s not like he has a reputation as a flaming liberal,” Ornstein said. “So I don’t think it hurts him with Republicans, I think it helps him with RepublicansFor any Republicans who view McCain as this unreconstructed maverick who can’t be trusted, John Warner’s seal of approval helps very much.”
Warner highlighted McCain’s conservative principles of small government on his recent stop in Florida.
“John couldn’t win a popularity contest in the Senate if he tried,” the senator said, according to news reports. “Why? Because he cuts too much government spending.”
Larry Sabato, the political Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Warner’s support could be invaluable for McCain as the campaign moves ahead to Super Tuesday and beyond.
“McCain has warmly welcomed Warner’s support, and if Warner is very public about it in the week between Feb. 5 and the mid-Atlantic primary on Feb. 12, it could matter a great deal,” Sabato said.
After Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, Virginia’s primary could play a major role in the nominating process with its primary (along with Maryland’s) on Feb. 12. In the week after Super Tuesday, Sabato anticipates press coverage will play a major role in how candidates convey their messages to voters.
“John Warner can help McCain get a lot of free coverage,” he said.
Sabato also noted that Virginia’s primary was the symbolic last nail in McCain’s coffin in 2000. That year he came to Virginia Beach and criticized Evangelical leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, a strategy that ultimately backfired.
“Bush had just won South Carolina in 2000, and McCain’s 9-pt loss in VA sealed his fate,” Sabato said. “It would be ironic if VA boosted McCain this yearmuch as SC’s reversal has done.”