McCain Sees Anti-Mormonism in Romney's S.C. Loss

McCain Sees Anti-Mormonism in Romney's S.C. Loss

By Erin McPike - January 28, 2012

THE VILLAGES, Fla. -- John McCain has become Mitt Romney's biggest advocate in this critical early primary state, one that made his own GOP presidential nomination inevitable four years ago.

In an interview with RealClearPolitics after a town-hall meeting with about 100 seniors here, McCain often referred to Romney and his campaign as “we.” At the end of the interview, he asked intensely, “What’s [the RCP polling average] saying about us overnight after the debate?”

A reflection of this sense of ownership was evident in his take on last Saturday’s South Carolina primary, which Gingrich won.

“We haven’t had time to do a real analysis of the Romney race in South Carolina, but once we break that down, there was some element of anti-Mormonism in that vote,” McCain asserted. “I’m not saying all of it, but there were elements there. There was nothing that Mitt Romney could have done.”

Could that bias, if it exists, extend beyond the Palmetto State to others in the South if the primary drags on? “I’m not sure [but] I don’t think so,” McCain said, pointing to Georgia as one place he doesn’t believe would hold Romney’s religion against him.

McCain cited the possible anti-Mormonism in response to a query about the growing Tea Party support Gingrich has begun to draw, particularly in Florida.

The Arizona senator doesn’t believe that support will be lasting because Gingrich’s record doesn’t track with issues dear to the movement, he said.

McCain and fellow former presidential nominee Bob Dole have taken aim at Gingrich, as have a number of influential Washington insiders. Given the Tea Party’s disdain for the GOP establishment, could those attacks trigger a backlash that benefits Gingrich?

“I think that’s always a risk, but once the Tea Partiers examine his fiscal record, then it’s very hard to get enthusiastic about a guy that supported a bill that had $14 billion in earmarks,” McCain said. “That flies in the face of everything the Tea Partiers believe. He can talk a good fight, but he can’t run on his record.”

McCain’s endorsement of Romney was not offered simply because the party’s last nominee would be expected to back the likeliest standard-bearer in a battle against the man who kept him out of the White House. And he told the crowd here that he will campaign for Romney well after the Florida primary is over, if the candidate wishes.

McCain’s long weekend in support of his former rival was announced Wednesday afternoon, after a pair of partisan polls showed Romney trailing Gingrich. McCain held events on his own Thursday and Friday, and then joined Romney for a rally in Orlando Friday night. He will campaign with the former Massachusetts governor in Florida’s panhandle on Saturday.

But if his candidate wins the nomination, what of the tougher fight, the one in the fall against President Obama?

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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