The funny thing about the Holy War now raging in the Republican Party is that there was never supposed to be one--not this time, not after eight years in the wilderness, not after Gingrich flamed out, not after one faithful conservative candidate after another collapsed in ruins in 1998. Leave the fratricide to the Democrats; leave the theological weight lifting to Forbes and Keyes and Bauer and Quayle. Both George W. Bush and John McCain were heirs to the victory wing of the party, not the purity wing; both based their appeal on being conservative enough to win the purists but expansive enough to capture the radical center as well.
So how is it that fire and brimstone were raining down on the candidates last week as they alternately attacked each other's positions and apologized for their own--much to the delight of Democrats watching from the sidelines and imagining that neither man could emerge from this inferno unscarred? McCain embarked on what looked very much like a kamikaze run, flying straight into the heart of Christian evangelicalism and declaring, in a speech in Virginia Beach, Va., that "neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right." And then, for good measure, a day later McCain branded G.O.P. clerics "evil" as Bush went on to sweep all three Tuesday primaries by comfy margins.
It seems that both victory and defeat have a way of changing people, rewiring the circuits and rewriting the scripts. The theme of brotherly love disappeared when Bush had the wits scared out of him in New Hampshire and discovered he would have to give up his pound of flesh to the right wing after all; when Bush allies passed out leaflets about Cindy McCain's past addiction to painkillers; when McCain slashed back by suggesting that Bush was intolerant in reaching out to the Fundamentalists at Bob Jones University. Even before last week, the race that was supposed to be cheap and easy and over by now had grown ugly and expensive and long.
It all sounded so personal that it was easy to miss that the war was less about ideology than about power. McCain could claim that his assault last week on leaders of the religious establishment was just his latest rage against the machine, to tell Republicans that they cannot hope to draw people into the fold if they continue to be obsessed with soft money or partisan power or ideological purity. But when he went too far and called the mullahs evil, he allowed the Texans to whisper once more that McCain was simply not steady enough to carry the flag for his or any other party. All Bush needed to do was persuade his team to quiet down, quote Scripture, turn the other cheek and hope McCain would hang himself.
"No matter what happens," McCain told TIME last week, "we have changed the Republican Party." But will the effort cost him his chance to lead it?