Did the "religious right's" mistakes make McCain inevitable? Update: Tammy Bruce audio added

USA Today’s Daniel Gilgoff and Captain Ed both think so, and they posit the “Mormon issue” as an underlying driver. I think they’re both oversimplifying. The “Mormon issue” played a role, but I don’t think it was the most important role in why most evangelicals never really warmed to Mitt. I also think that they overstate the influence of evangelical leaders like Dr. James Dobson. Those leaders are influential, but not as influential as they or outsiders think they are.

I’ll use myself as an example of why. I’m an evangelical and I only came around to supporting Romney as the best alternative to McCain late in the game, after the Florida primary. The “Mormon issue” had nothing to do with it, though. The flipflop issue and the Fred issue had everything to do with it. For most other evangelicals, the Huckaboom also played a decisive role. Anyone who disagrees isn’t to be trusted as an analyst. I keed.

First, the flipflop issue. This was huge for me. As candidates for the presidency go, on paper Romney stood out for his broad experience with the Olympics, as a businessman and as a governor. He was easily the most qualified for the job. But the Mitt Romney of 1994 and 2002 didn’t sound much like the Mitt Romney of 2006-2007. Romney explained his changes of heart here and there, but they all added up to not knowing what he really believes. If he doesn’t know what he believes, how is a voter supposed to know what he believes? And if I can’t figure out what he really believes, I’ll have a hard time voting for him. I eventually came around to supporting Romney once I became convinced that Mitt 2.0 is where he’ll stay. Most evangelicals probably never got that far, though. They had Huckabee as a “Christian leader” in the race, and on social issues Huck was with them, so they went with him. They never heard about his record on immigration or his weaknesses on national security.

I’ll get to the Huckaboom in a minute, but before that happened there was the Fred factor. Fred’s emergence as a possibility in the race in early 2007 gave conservatives a place to put our hopes. Fred said and wrote all the right things. Fred took attention and time away from three things: The McCain collapse, Romney’s attempts to convince conservatives that he is one of us, and examination of Huckabee’s conservative bona fides. Those of us who didn’t yet trust Romney, didn’t want McCain, were worried about Giuliani and discounted Huckabee looked to Fred as the one real conservative in the race who could unite the conservative movement. But Fred fizzled. His campaign never really got off the ground. He ended up wasting time and sucking up space that Romney could have used to cast himself as Fred with a deeper resume.

Then came the Huckaboom. Evangelicals didn’t yet trust Romney, didn’t like Giuliani (who also ended up wasting the time of security conservatives), and didn’t want McCain, and along comes the witty Southern preacher/governor. Huckabee became the vessel for most evangelical enthusiasm just by being there. He didn’t have a record of flipflopping on core social issues. He didn’t have a record like Giuliani’s of opposing the GOP platform or of serial marriage. He didn’t have McCain’s record of maverick irascibility and calling social con leaders “agents of intolerance.” As long as Huckabee’s record didn’t get scrutinized too closely on national security, border security and economics, he was a viable candidate. The problem for Huck was that his appeal never broke out beyond the evangelicals and was never likely to.

By the time the Huckaboom was over, Fred was done and McCain was on the rise, having rebuilt and retooled after his campaign had fallen apart. McCain’s rise coincided with the time some conservatives started to take their third or fourth look at the alternatives and some began to settle on Romney as the Not McCain.

That was my trajectory. The “Mormon issue” played no role in my thinking at all. Dobson et al played no role for me. I’m sure all of that played a role in the thinking of some evangelicals, but it wasn’t as decisive as either Gilgoff or Capt Ed think. Fundamentally, all of the candidates have brought serious problems to the table. The “religious right” certainly isn’t to blame for that.

There is one thing left hanging that I think is worth noting, and that’s that McCain isn’t the worst candidate we could be stuck with at this point. He’s probably the third worst in terms of dividing the party against itself, but he’s not the worst. Giuliani and Huckabee both would have been worse, for reasons unique to them. Giuliani has just as much of a record of going against the party as McCain, plus he has immense personal baggage. Huckabee would have divided the social cons sharply against the economic cons and showed himself to be a lightweight on national security. So no matter how bad we think things are right now, I’m at least taking some solace in the fact that it could’ve been worse.

McCain still needs to fire Juan Hernandez, though.

Update: I’ll be on the Tammy Bruce Show this afternoon to talk about this post. It should be fun.

Update: Here’s the audio from my guest appearance on Tammy’s show today. Am I an “icon” now? I just might be.