Politics & Government

McCain not first in their hearts, but there now

The Carolinas' delegates to the Republican National Convention didn't pick U.S. Sen. John McCain.

He was their second choice, the backup prom date.

“There were several other candidates I supported in the beginning,” said Jerry Sellers, a retired banker in Denver, N.C., and now a delegate backing McCain.

The delegates have quickly and unequivocally lined up behind McCain. The preponderance of them who are latecomers to his bandwagon, though, suggests that he has work to do in building enthusiasm for his candidacy.

Delegate Steve Long, a Raleigh tax lawyer, was asked to rate his enthusiasm for McCain on a 1 to 10 scale.

“Eight,” Long said. “It used to be seven.”

The Carolinas delegates overwhelmingly picked other candidates when the Republican primaries began in January, according to an Observer survey. Only two out of 28 N.C. delegates surveyed – nearly half the delegation – picked McCain as their first choice. Three of 10 S.C. delegates got on McCain's team early.

“I was riding the Romney horse,” said S.C. state Rep. Alan Clemmons, of Myrtle Beach, referring to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

“Huckabee, I thought, was a little more conservative, thinking about right to life,” said Nancy Wells, of Greensboro, who handles marketing for that city's symphony.

She now rates her enthusiasm for McCain at “10.”

From bottom to top

McCain's late rise among Carolinas Republicans mirrors his success nationally. His campaign tanked in 2007. Fundraising bottomed out, and top managers were jettisoned as he lagged in most polls.

“We had run out of money. Our backs were against the wall,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, a longtime McCain ally.

McCain clawed his way back up, faring respectably in Iowa and winning New Hampshire by making his case to voters, not by riding a frontrunner's wave or running glitzy commercials, said N.C. state Rep. Louis Pate, of Mount Olive, another delegate.

“That means he's been pretty well held in esteem by voters when the debates or forums are held,” Pate said.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who competed against McCain for the nomination, said at least some of the party unified quickly and easily behind McCain.

“During a lot of the primaries, I was the No. 2 choice of a lot of his supporters,” Giuliani said, “and he was the No. 2 choice of my supporters.”

McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said McCain has already solidified the support of the party.

“Show me a poll that says we're not at 85 to 90 percent (support among Republicans),” Davis said, “which is the highest levels of support you can get in the party.”

Well, nobody's perfect

Conservatives, though, were not quick to warm to McCain, who sometimes has broken with party leaders on issues that conservatives valued highly, such as campaign finance reform.

“McCain's hard to get a handle on,” said Dan Mansell, a delegate from Selma, near Raleigh. “You don't know which way he's going to go.”

Mansell, who initially backed former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, emphasized that he's 100 percent behind McCain now.

Jerry Sellers said neither McCain nor Bush “is what I would call a movement conservative.”

Eight of those surveyed, less than one-third, rated their enthusiasm as a “10.” Two-thirds of the N.C. delegates to the Democratic convention who were surveyed rated their enthusiasm for Obama as “10.”

McCain, however, is making progress. Ask Thomas Foxx, a Watauga County homebuilder and husband of U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx.

“I'm far more excited than I used to be,” Foxx said.