Is , the maverick flyboy of the , becoming the candidate of the Republican establishment?
Mr. McCain, who has delighted in sticking his thumb in the eye of mainstream Republicans throughout his political career, is now accumulating a base of support among party regulars who see him as the strongest general election candidate in the remaining Republican field.
The latest evidence came Saturday night with the endorsement of Florida’s popular Republican governor, Charlie Crist, which surprised even Mr. McCain. That state holds primary elections on Tuesday.
In an interview Sunday, Mr. Crist said his endorsement was based on “trust and confidence and friendship,” as well as what he said were Mr. McCain’s unmatched national security credentials.
But he also said he believed that Mr. McCain had the broadest appeal of the four major Republican candidates still standing and the best chance of beating the Democratic nominee in November. “I’ve been traveling the state, and in the last few days people have been taking this very seriously,” he said. “I think Tuesday will be very telling, and it will be a great day for Senator McCain.”
The Crist endorsement came 24 hours after that of Senator Mel Martinez of Florida, a former general chairman of the and a popular figure in Florida’s Cuban-American community.
Mr. McCain has also won the support of a number of established party figures, including moderates like former Senators of Missouri and of Tennessee and conservatives like Senator of Oklahoma and former Representative of New York.
A year ago, Mr. McCain entered the nominating contest as the presumed front-runner, surrounded by a team of policy advisers and fund-raisers from the Bush administration and the two winning Bush campaigns. But the McCain effort imploded last summer in acrimony and financial ruin, and , a former New York mayor, and , a former governor of Massachusetts, surged to the front of the pack.
But Mr. McCain battled back, and many party leaders and Congressional colleagues rallied to his side after it became clear that he was again viable with his victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
“Maybe some of it is because of friendship,” Mr. McCain said in an interview Sunday, “although that is the most overrated aspect of American politics. But some of it is because of electability.”
He cited several polls that seemed to show him the strongest of the Republican candidates against the leading Democratic candidates, Senator of New York and Senator of Illinois.
Mr. McCain also has a long list of newspaper endorsements, far more than any of his rivals.
All this, of course, in part reflects the bandwagon effect in politics, the cold calculation by politicians that it is wise to get behind the front-runner, and the earlier the better. There is an element, too, of disdain for Mr. Romney, who has altered a number of positions he held as governor and who is running against Washington, which he has proclaimed “broken.”
Mr. Martinez, introducing Mr. McCain at a town-hall-style meeting at a retiree development here, about 45 miles northwest of Orlando, made the electability argument explicit. “It’s important that we win in November, and I think John McCain gives us the best chance to win in November,” he said, citing polls that show Mr. McCain would be the most competitive against the Democratic nominee.
“We need John McCain to be the standard bearer,” Mr. Martinez said.
Conservatives steer clear
But the apparent coalescing of much of the Republican establishment around Mr. McCain carries drawbacks as well. Many in the right wing of the party consider him an apostate and a certain loser in a general election.
, the conservative radio commentator, has warned that if Mr. McCain wins the nomination, “it’s going to destroy the Republican Party” because conservatives will desert in droves. Many object to his moderate views on . Pro-business conservatives have attacked his positions on the environment, pointing to legislation Mr. McCain has co-sponsored to address . Conservatives have also attacked his high-profile criticism of Republicans in Congress over pork barrel spending and of President Bush on the early conduct of the Iraq war.
A spokesman for Mr. Romney, who is competing fiercely with Mr. McCain for votes in Florida’s primary on Tuesday, said the endorsement of Mr. Martinez was predictable because he and Mr. McCain had co-sponsored immigration legislation that many Republicans rejected as too lenient on illegal immigrants.
Mr. Romney’s endorsement list tilts toward the conservative wing of the party. It includes Senators of Mississippi and of New Hampshire, Govs. Dave Heineman of Nebraska and Matt Blunt of Missouri and the conservative advocates David Keene and Paul Weyrich.
One neutral state party Republican chairman, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the contest candidly, said that the endorsements might help validate Mr. McCain with some Republican voters, but they would turn off others.
“It’s a tricky double-edged sword,” the official said. “They point out all the problems conservatives have with him.”
The official added: “The real problem is, where is the base? He hasn’t won anywhere with just Republican votes. California is much more conservative on the Republican side, and so is New York, and those are closed primaries and he can’t count on independent or Democratic votes.”
Steve Duprey, a former Republican chairman in New Hampshire who is now a McCain supporter, said that many establishment figures were falling in line behind Mr. McCain now after watching the campaign unfold. He said that his peers — state and county party leaders, precinct captains, local elected officials — were now starting to ask which candidate had the best chance of winning.
“As the race has sorted itself out,” he said, “more and more people are coming to believe that John McCain has made a compelling case that he’s ready to lead on Day 1.”