December 18, 2007

Can McCain Make The Sale?

On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, the only certainty apparent in the Republican race is that no one has a clear path to the nomination. Mike Huckabee has to rely on a surge that will derail Mitt Romney's early-state strategy. Rudy Giuliani has to hope that Huckabee's momentum hasn't killed his Florida firewall strategy. Fred Thompson somehow has to capture the momentum he ceded to Huckabee in Iowa with a surprisingly sluggish campaign.

Meanwhile, John McCain continues to work on friendly ground in New Hampshire, hoping he can see daylight to a surprise in the Granite State that will boost his credibility for the later states. The Wall Street Journal wonders whether Republicans will have any inclination to reconsider the one-time maverick:

As recently as January, Mr. McCain was the putative Republican favorite, but his support collapsed amid his campaign mismanagement and the GOP's immigration meltdown. Now primary voters seem prepared to give him a second look in an unstable race. Mike Huckabee has galloped to a lead in Iowa, bruising Mitt Romney, though without much scrutiny of the former Arkansas Governor's record. Fred Thompson has yet to offer a compelling rationale for his candidacy. Rudy Giuliani for a time defied political gravity based on his New York reform leadership, but he has been hurt by questions about his judgment and ethics.

Re-enter Mr. McCain, who is nothing if not a known GOP commodity. One of his problems has been that to some Republicans he is too well known. This is the John McCain who was adored by the media for opposing tax cuts, favoring limits on free speech as part of "campaign finance reform," and embracing a cap and trade regime for global warming. This is the John McCain who was also endorsed this weekend by the Des Moines Register and Boston Globe, two liberal papers that are sure to endorse a Democrat next year. ...

Our guess is that this national security record is the main reason for his own political surge. With the success of General David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, even some conservatives have taken to arguing that foreign and military policy will become less important in 2008. We doubt it. This is still a post-9/11 country, and voters know they will be electing a Commander in Chief in a world that is as dangerous as it was during the height of the Cold War. In an election against any Democrat next year, Mr. McCain would have little trouble winning the security debate.

In a strange way, the elements of the primary campaign have conspired to give McCain a second shot at the nomination. He fixed his campaign problems in time to maintain his national standing as a candidate. Meanwhile, while Republicans still have issues with his policies and track record, the same can be said about all of his competitors. Critics have lambasted Huckabee's record in Arkansas, dinging his momentum, while the conservative base has continued to have issues with Giuliani's pro-choice social centrism. Romney has tried to overcome policy shifts and past rhetoric, but still has not quite built trust with the voters.

Can McCain take advantage of that? He has admitted error on two key positions that generated considerable ire among Republicans: tax cuts and immigration. His position on cuts now unreservedly recognizes the economic boost that Bush's reductions created, and says he will defend them as President. That's at least as believable as Romney's reversal on abortion, although a President has a much greater effect on taxes than on abortion, making it pragmatically much more critical.

On immigration, the sale will almost certainly not succeed. As late as this summer, McCain tried forcing through a reform package that infuriated conservatives. He now says that he "heard the message" and will pursue border security first before turning his attention to the status of illegal immigrants. Had he done that this summer, he may have found some credibility -- but that opportunity has passed. The same is true with campaign-finance reform, where some conservatives and liberals find agreement that the effect has been to curtail political speech and not corruption. In this case, McCain remains politely defiant.

McCain has been magnificent on the war and on spending. He has bucked his own party on what turned out to be a poor strategy in post-war Iraq and fought hard for the White House when they finally took his advice. For porkbusting, one could not find a better candidate, one who has already fought in the trenches against the thinly-veiled bribery system that has gripped Congress.

Those qualities have rightly kept him in contention -- but will they be enough for him to prevail? Only if Republican voters decide that the other top-tier candidates have more negatives than McCain. If GOP voters perceive him as the most reliable conservative, one who can hold the Republican big tent together, he has a fighting chance. Unfortunately, McCain's record as a "maverick" will make that conclusion very difficult to reach.


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