McCain fallout: What's conservative talk radio's next move? Update: Whither immigration?

Medved used McCain’s last victory to flog the industry for being irrelevant, a dubious point given the fact that he’d won only open primaries to that point but decidedly less dubious this morning with J-Mac and Mitt splitting conservatives in Florida, 33-33. (It was independents registered as Republicans who put him over the top, natch.) What now? The Observer previews the spin:

[One claim] would be that the conservative punditry actually “won.” Mr. McCain has been getting stronger, they would argue, by embracing conservative positions in order to gain the nomination. Mr. McCain confessed that he had learned the lesson about immigration reform, that border control is essential before pursuing any legalization plan for those already here. He promised to retain the Bush tax cuts. He embraced his support of gun rights and touted his pro-life voting record. This, the conservatariat could contend, and not Mr. McCain’s global-warming ruminations or his role in the Gang of 14, is what helped him win.

They could, except that they’ve spent weeks accusing McCain of being a liberal Democrat who’ll quickly resort to his natural ways once elected. To claim now that he only won by tacking right is to admit either that the base is full of gullible morons or that they’re not listening to talk radio. The likelier spin, also identified by the Observer, is to follow the left’s playbook after Kerry lost in ’04 and shoot the messengers by blaming Romney, Thompson, and Giuliani for being bad candidates. That would at least have the advantage of being true and would theoretically absolve talk radio — although if the knock on Mitt is that he can’t convincingly sell conservatism, the question becomes why, if Rush and Hannity are so influential, their own salesmanship isn’t enough to compensate. The answer may be that they, and he, can sell conservatism, but that “conservative” doesn’t mean “Republican” to quite the same extent it used to. Just a theory for now, but ask me again next Tuesday night if Maverickmania sweeps across the land.

My own hunch, which isn’t really a hunch so much as what I’d like to believe, is that McCain won because he’s the hedgehog to Romney’s fox. Mitt knows many things but McCain knows one big thing, i.e. Iraq, and when push comes to shove the GOP wants to win the war above all else. I’d like to believe that, only because the thought that Maverick won on the merits across the board is too dismal. Anyway, exit question: How does talk radio handle this week? Short of formally endorsing Romney, Limbaugh’s played every card he has on McCain, including an extravagant election day attack and a veiled threat earlier not to vote Republican in November if certain unnamed candidates are nominated. Does he go all-in by breaking his rule not to endorse in primaries and campaigning for Romney in earnest? If so and McCain sweeps Super Tuesday anyway, it’ll be final confirmation of the Medved thesis and the most humiliating rebuke since, well, since Giuliani’s vote totals last night.

Update: Yes, I’m aware that the exit polls put the economy ahead of Iraq as the most important issue, 45-14. And yes, I’m also aware that the guy who won admits publicly to not understanding economics as well as he should. I’m just … trying not to think about it.

Update: Another exit question: Is talk radio in better or worse shape than border enforcement right now? David Brooks and Bob Novak are already crowing about the irrelevance of Romney’s comparatively hard line against amnesty. That can be spun for the moment by pointing to Florida’s big Cuban minority. Same result next Tuesday, though? Not so much.

Update (Bryan): I think Brooks and Novak are intentionally missing the point re immigration. The fact is, McCain had to publicly track to the right on that and enough voters evidently bought it, at least to the extent that it neutralized Romney’s stance. Those voters didn’t hear about Juan Hernandez or the rest of the evidence that McCain’s conversion is insincere because the MSM didn’t report it. Talk radio didn’t do much with it either. Laura Ingraham brought it up, but I don’t think Rush or Hannity have. Novak and Brooks also fail to take into account the recent trio of immigration enforcement wins in NY, MI and MD. Those occurred under Democrat governors responding to pressure from the electorate, and the one in NY rattled the Clinton campaign for a while.

So those two are sticking to their preferred storyline, but they’re wrong.