BROOKFIELD, Wis. — John McCain came to Wisconsin on Tuesday not just to win the state's Republican presidential primary, but to win big and vanquish Mike Huckabee once and for all.
He succeeded, and on Tuesday night he turned his attention to the general election.
The Arizona senator declared victory with a speech that had the ring of a general election rallying cry, including a sharp jab at Democratic front-runner Barack Obama.
"Will the next president have the experience, the judgment experience informs and the strength of purpose to respond to each of these developments in ways that strengthen our security and advance the global progress of our ideals?" McCain asked.
"Or will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested invading our ally, Pakistan, and sitting down without preconditions or clear purpose with enemies who support terrorists and are intent on destabilizing the world by acquiring nuclear weapons?"
McCain's forces had been concerned about Wisconsin, as polls showed Huckabee's strength growing. Exit polls suggested that the former Arkansas governor still has at least one significant source of strength. He beat McCain handily among born-again Christians and evangelicals, who make up 38 percent of the state's GOP electorate. And while a lot of voters who once backed other candidates have switched to McCain, many of them didn't seem enthusiastic.
That's why McCain took the unusual step Tuesday of holding an Election Day rally in a Milwaukee suburb while people were going to the polls.
He knew a loss or a narrow win here would be a setback as he struggles to mend fences with his party's conservative base, especially as the campaign moves to Texas for the March 4 primary.
Republican voters in Wisconsin showed why McCain had to make the effort — and keep making it.
"McCain's not my first choice, but I like the guy," said Mark Plonske, a Brookfield auto claims representative who preferred former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. But he wasn't voting for McCain; he was going for Democratic New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, figuring she'd be the easiest candidate for a Republican to beat in November.
Clem Jansen, a New Berlin retiree, had a hard time deciding between McCain and Huckabee. "They're both good men," he said. "I like Huckabee's tax plan, but I like McCain because of who he is."
McCain, showing his humble side, was careful not to criticize Huckabee or any of his vanquished rivals.
During his 20-minute morning talk at the rally, he praised each of the former candidates and told the crowd of about 500, "I respect Governor Huckabee's desire to remain in this race."
McCain remains well-positioned to clinch the nomination in the round of primaries on March 4 in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont. He could pick up as many as 56 delegates in Tuesday's contests in Wisconsin and Washington, adding to his 908 total, but that wouldn't be enough to get him to the 1,191 needed for a convention majority.