The Virginia Primaries – John Warners McCain bet

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Theyve barely been apart in public life for more than four decades.

They came to know each other at the Pentagon when John Warner served as Secretary of the Navy and John McCain was returning home from the Vietnam War as a Naval hero, after being held captive in a dank prison for five years in Hanoi.

Old loyalties are seldom severed with Sen. Warner, the longtime Alexandria resident and lion in winter whos coasting towards retirement after five decades in public service, the last three as the senior Senator from Virginia.

So when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) came calling for help in his once-floundering presidential bid, his old friend Sen. Warner was there for him, lending the presidential hopeful his significant political gravitas and helping him shore up support among traditional Republican voters. 

Help from Warner, who tends to appeal to many moderate Democrats, certainly did not hurt McCains underdog campaign, which on Tuesday helped him claim the mantle of front-runner, in rolling up a series of big Super Tuesday victories in his Republican race for president. McCains victories included New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Oklahoma, Missouri and Arizona, his home. He also won the biggest prize, California.

Warner popped up at McCains campaign stops in South Carolina the weekend before its crucial primary on Jan. 19, then days before the Florida Primary on Jan. 29, Warner appeared at a gymnasium in Pensacola. Last Saturday, Warner spoke on McCains behalf at the Bergen County Republican Organization in New Jersey.  McCain won all three primaries.

McCain is a man resolved to do, first and foremost, what is best for the country, no matter was it costs politically, Warner told McCain supporters Saturday.

At a campaign event in Florida, Warner stressed that McCain is the best prepared to be commander in chief from day one. You need somebody who doesnt need any on the job training when he walks into the White House and thats John McCain, he said. John understands the challenges and threats that face America today and really have never faced any other president.

Warner, a longtime Alexandria resident, knew McCains 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 some political pundits when he endorsed McCain a year ago, when his campaign was struggling. At the time, the two differed significantly on what to do about Iraq. Warner was calling for troop withdrawal, McCain has vowed to stay the course.

As former chair of Senate Armed Services and one of the Senates most respected members, Warners significant political sway could shore up McCains support among Republicans heading into Florida on Tuesday and beyond.  I think its a help for him in a couple of ways, said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. The first is Warner is widely admired and admired among Republicans. The second is hes seen as a patriot and an expert on defense and international matters.

Moreover, Ornstein noted, it reinforces McCains message that he is more qualified than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, McCains primary rival for the nomination and a career businessman, on military and national security issues.

McCain has relied on Warner and other endorsement to solidify his base with traditional Republican voters. Warner has a reputation as a moderate but its not like he has a reputation as a flaming liberal, Ornstein said. So I dont think it hurts him with Republicans, I think it helps him with RepublicansFor any Republicans who view McCain as this unreconstructed maverick who cant be trusted, John Warners seal of approval helps very much.

Warner highlighted McCains conservative principles of small government on his stop in Florida. John couldnt win a popularity contest in the Senate if he tried, Warner said. Why? Because he cuts too much government spending.

Larry Sabato, the political Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Warners support could be invaluable for McCain as the campaign moves into Super Tuesday and beyond. McCain has warmly welcomed Warners 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, Virginias primary could play a major role in the nominating process with its primary (along with Marylands and the District of Columbias) on Feb. 12. John Warner can help McCain get a lot of free coverage here in Virginia, he said.

Other notable Virginians are supporting McCain. Venture capitalist Fred Malek of McLean and financial executive Carter Pate are both National Finance Committee Co-Chairs of the McCain campaign. Congressman Tom Davis (R) has also endorsed the Arizona senator.

Sabato noted that Virginias primary was the symbolic last nail in McCains 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 McCains 9 point loss in Virginia sealed his fate, Sabato said. It would be ironic if Virginia boosted McCain this yearmuch as South Carolinas reversal has done.

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