E.J. Dionne notes that John McCain is still standing, despite his campaign being seen as largely moribund. He asks if some aren’t giving McCain a second look as the rest of the field fails to show a breakout leader:
Yet there is also cold calculation on the part of Republicans who are giving McCain a second look. Their challenge is to find a candidate who can broaden the party’s currently anemic appeal while still holding it together.
Giuliani says he is that man, and he has stepped up his campaigning in a state whose libertarian streak makes his support for abortion rights less toxic. At a news conference following a speech at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, Giuliani stressed his ability to turn the GOP into “a 50-state party” and argued that voters who didn’t like his abortion views would definitely like the judges he would appoint.
McCain, on the other hand, has always been an abortion foe. His campaign argues that he can appeal outside Republican ranks without alienating pro-life voters, as Giuliani would. Conservative voters are paying attention.
I don’t think McCain will pull ahead, but it’s a distant possibility. McCain has several advantages: he’s a die-hard fiscal conservative, he’s strong on the war, he appeals to moderates and he has the best personal story of any of the candidates. Turning the Salt Lake City Olympics around is a great achievement. Leading New York City in the aftermath of the September 11 atrocities is a great achievement. Yet when it comes down to who has done the most for his country, nothing comes close to what John McCain endured.
Despite all of the distrust conservatives feel for John McCain, he’s not out because he’s the sort of person that exemplifies key conservative ideals. He is a leader, and despite some of his policy positions, many conservatives are looking for leadership these days. Ultimately, I don’t think John McCain’s personal heroism and what conservative principles he does champion will make up for his support for campaign finance reform, his weakness on some tax issues and especially his immigration position. At the same time, the fact that he’s still competitive in key states like Iowa suggests that some of his appeal from 2000 is still there.
McCain would be competitive against Hillary. He’s principled, he stands strongly on conservative issues, and while he takes positions that are against the GOP base, he does so in a way that is based less on political expediency and more on his convictions. He’s authentic in a way that the carefully-controlled Hillary Clinton is not and never can be.
I wouldn’t be betting on McCain pulling ahead, but stranger things have happened. As the GOP field has thus far failed to see any candidate break, it’s still a wide-open game, and McCain is that game in a smart and efficient way—mainly because he has to. Don’t necessarily count on McCain, but don’t count him out either. On some of the key issues that will face this country in the next few years, the war, entitlement reform and spending, McCain is in the right place. If he can convince Republican voters that he really is serious about an enforcement-first immigration policy, he has a chance, albeit slim, to pull ahead of the pack and emerge as the underdog candidate with a viable national appeal.
UPDATE: Of course, I’d be remiss in not pointing out that former candidate Sen. Sam Brownback has endorsed McCain. That helps McCain with the social conservative vote, although probably not be a great deal. Unfortunately for McCain, Pat Robertson’s endorsement of Rudy has stolen the thunder from the Brownback endorsement, no doubt to the great chagrin of Team McCain.