A Second Look At McCain

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.

One thought on “A Second Look At McCain

  1. McCain’s comeback frightens me. He’s by far the most electable Republican candidate of the bunch. Immigration could easily turn into as big of a liability for McCain what abortion will be for Giuliani, but there’s plenty of room for him to position himself to the right of Hillary of any of the other Democratic candidates.

    As I’ve repeatedly stated, issues matter not a whit in Presidential elections, particularly those close enough to attract the politically disconnected to the polls who are very unlikely to deny McCain their vote based on his support of “campaign finance reform”. The winner of the next Presidential election is likely to be determined the same way the last two were….by a few hundred thousand voters in a couple “battleground states” who base their vote on which candidate will be the least annoying to listen to on TV for the next four years or which candidate’s wife would make the most charming First Lady. On the superficial front, McCain’s only rising liability is his age, but he still doesn’t have that Bob Dole-esque curmudgeon factor and manages to seem positively zippy every time he’s lucky enough to share a stage with Fred Thompson, so I don’t think age would deter would-be “swing voters” in the face of Hillary Clinton opposition.

    Seven years ago, McCain would have mopped the floor up with Al Gore or any other Democrat. In 2007, he’s lost some of his luster with independents, but would get it back in an instant in a national campaign against Hillary. If the Dems choose not to commit electoral suicide and nominate Obama or Edwards, then it would be a heckuva national election contest, but if Hillary’s coronation continues undeterred, McCain would win by more than 75 electoral votes and sweep every noncoastal state except Illinois.

    As for Pat Robertson endorsing a cross-dresser, it rings kind of hollow coming from a guy who welcomes devastating hurricanes as retribution for support of gay rights’ measures. Robertson’s calculation could backfire come the general election if Rudy makes it that far. Will the Pennsylvania and Connecticut moderates embrace Rudy as he’s counting on when they see campaign ads with him standing hand-in-hand with a guy who cheered on the collapse of the World Trade Center as God’s punishment for gays, lesbians, and the ACLU?

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