SOMEWHERE BETWEEN NEW YORK AND WASHINGTON (CNN) – Tens of thousands of feet over the Atlantic, one of John McCain's biggest congressional supporters said the Republican presidential hopeful's biggest challenge in a fall matchup with Democrat Barack Obama would be to pull the Illinois senator's public image “out of the stratosphere, out of the mythology that’s already been created for him.”
The morning after strong Super Tuesday showings for both candidates, New York Rep. Peter King and I shared the Delta Shuttle flight from New York to Washington, D.C. For the quickie interview, King reclined his seat back the full two inches, and I pitched him questions from the row behind.
King, a longtime McCain supporter who backed the senator during his last presidential run in 2000, started out the current campaign cycle supporting fellow New Yorker Rudy Giuliani. He made the move to the McCain team after the former New York City mayor abandoned his White House bid, and spent much of the past week campaigning with the senator in New York.
(McCain - whose campaign famously battled former New York Gov. George Pataki to appear on the primary ballot in 2000 - this week won both the former governor's endorsement and the state's winner-take-all Republican contest.)
Obama’s rise, said King, was being portrayed as “almost a second coming of Camelot” - and in a McCain-Obama faceoff, the Arizona Republican could find himself “up against almost a myth, a legend.
"I’m not trying to be sarcastic here," he said. "Obama’s campaigning on a platform of hope, change, and John will need to bring it back to reality. What is Obama going to do about Islamic terrorism, about Iraq and the consequences of [Obama’s] immediate withdrawal plan?”
In a head-to-head race against fellow New Yorker Hillary Clinton, McCain would find himself in a “more traditional left-of-center, right-of-center fight,” King said.
The biggest Super Tuesday shocks for King? “I’m astounded by Clinton’s win in Massachusetts. After all that talk of the Kennedys, and Obama’s support there.” On the GOP side: Huckabee. “I am surprised by Mike Huckabee’s staying power – how well he did in so many states after spending so little money and having no nationally organized campaign. It had to be very disappointing for Romney.”
McCain's path to the GOP nomination is looking far more secure after his strong Tuesday showing - though King complained the drama on the Democratic side could prove a bigger obstacle than any of his rivals. Still, his primary opponents can't drop out soon enough for King.
“Part of the problem is Obama and Clinton are running so tightly, they are getting all the extra media attention, and a Republican won’t get the same coverage,” he said. “The sooner John becomes the nominee, the sooner we can consolidate support and money. John needs to remain in the public eye, and we need to make sure he has the money to do it.”
- CNN Senior Political Producer Alex Wellen