12/04/2007

The McCain McCalculus

This fall, media coverage of the Republican presidential candidates has generally been about 1) Fred Thompson's entering the race and his subsequent crash back to earth, 2) the tit-for-tat between Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, 3) the meteoric rise of Mike Huckabee in Iowa, and 4) Ron Paul's impressive fundraising.

However, there has been one story that has largely gone unreported: the silent ascendancy of John McCain in New Hampshire. Like Huckabee has done in Iowa, it seems that John McCain is placing all his chips in New Hampshire and is using that as his launching pad to the nomination.

Much had been said and written about McCain's demise earlier this year by the punditry and the chattering classes of Washington. He was left for dead when news surfaced that his campaign was almost out of money and that a lot of his campaign staff resigned, was fired, or defected to another Republican's presidential campaign. But after retooling his campaign operation and stringing together a few credible and solid debate performances, he has begun to turn a few heads.

The latest entity to be impressed is New Hampshire's Union Leader, which endorsed McCain earlier this week. The endorsement, written by the paper's publisher Joseph McQuaid, cites his battle scars and courage to stand alone even when it's not politically expedient to do so as the reason behind their endorsement:

"We don't agree with him on every issue. We disagree with him strongly on campaign finance reform. What is most compelling about McCain, however, is that his record, his character, and his courage show him to be the most trustworthy, competent, and conservative of all those seeking the nomination. Simply put, McCain can be trusted to make informed decisions based on the best interests of his country, come hell or high water."
And this shows that McCain has filled the niche I had expected him to fill earlier.

While others were writing McCain off, I warned back in July and August that such talk was premature because he could emerge as the last man standing if Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney are seen as flashes in the pan. That has already happened to Thompson. And as Rudy Giuliani's record in New York receives further scrutiny, that may unravel his campaign as well. And of course, Mike Huckabee is positioned to deal a crippling blow to Mitt Romney in Iowa.

A few months ago, I said that one of the problems with John McCain was that he had no base. Consider this: Mike Huckabee is the candidate for social conservatives and the evangelical Christian wing of the party. Mitt Romney is the candidate for fiscal conservatives and the business wing of the party. Rudy Giuliani is the candidate for national security conservatives and the moderate wing of the party. The appeal of John McCain now is not that he has no base, but rather that he is actually a consensus candidate. Social conservatives should appreciate the fact that McCain is pro-life. Fiscal conservatives should appreciate how he shuns earmarks and vows so stridently to veto pork-laden bills. National security conservatives should be pleased with how McCain has supported the mission in Iraq even when it was politically radioactive. And moderates still remember McCain's "independence," as was demonstrated by his participation in the "Gang of 14" and the "comprehensive immigration reform" he supported. But if McCain is getting attacked from all sides, doesn't that mean there's something about him that everyone can like?

In September, I said that John McCain is the Joe Biden of the Republicans in that he is the elder statesman whose appeal increases the more Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney trash each other's records as they try to portray themselves as more conservative than they were earlier in their political careers. Rudy Giuliani's accusing Mitt Romney of running a "sanctuary mansion" and the lack of empathy Mitt Romney displayed towards Mike Huckabee on the issue of financial assistance for the children of illegal immigrants only serve to elevate the humble and pragmatic McCain at their expense.

This is not to say that McCain has a large margin for error. To be sure, New Hampshire is the state he must win in order to remain viable. But this task looks considerably less daunting than it once did about four months ago. However, he will need some help. And that help is coming from Mike Huckabee.

For McCain to win New Hampshire, he needs Mike Huckabee to beat Mitt Romney in Iowa first. An Iowa victory by Romney would likely lead to a Romney victory in New Hampshire, where Romney has been leading the polls for months. However, a Huckabee victory in Iowa would be followed by lots of news coverage about Romney's demise and how he couldn't close despite having spent so much money there. And as an added bonus for McCain, an Iowa victory by Huckabee would not threaten McCain in New Hampshire because New Hampshire Republicans are far less socially conservative than Iowa Republicans are. Unlike Huckabee and Romney, Huckabee and McCain draw from two totally different bases.

Should John McCain win New Hampshire, he would be well positioned to win Michigan, which he also won in 2000. As for South Carolina, there is a high population of military retirees in this state. Fort Jackson, a major Army base, is also located here. These military voters have high respect for John McCain and remember him from the 2000 campaign. So he would have a reasonable chance here too, although Huckabee is a greater threat to him here than in New Hampshire because of the high number of evangelicals, especially in the Upstate around Spartanburg.

Basically, McCain needs to win 3 of the 4 early states in order to emerge as the conservative alternative to Giuliani come Super Tuesday. And does anyone really believe that Rudy Giuliani is more credible on national security and terrorism than war veteran John McCain? But he needs Mike Huckabee to help pave the way for him first by clearing out Romney. Should this happen and McCain win the nomination, he would definitely owe Huckabee. Could McCain repay the favor by asking Huckabee to be his vice president? Republicans' chances in the general election would certainly be enhanced if this were to happen.

3 comment(s):

Schenck said...

Bomb, bomb, bomb; bomb, bomb, Iran

Though more of a policy attack, I think McCain's willingness for further militarism in the Middle East puts him a little too close to Bush with the "shoot first" agenda. Then again, I am biased. January will be an interesting month all across the board.

Anthony Palmer said...

John McCain is at his worst when he tries to "out-Republican" his rivals. He's at his most inauthentic and his least appealing when he plays too hard to the GOP base. That "bomb bomb Iran" stuff never would have happened had he not felt the need to try and portray himself as more of a conservative than Romney and Giuliani. Ironically, he would have been better off (in conservatives' minds) had he not made those remarks at all because he is obviously a more credible conservative than Romney and Giuliani combined.

Schenck said...

You're right... Clinton and Giuliani are one and the same, and Romney, well, he reminds me of Kerry for some reason. Just saw a new poll (WaPo) putting Romney at 37% to McCain's 20% in NH, so John still has a long way to go, even with Huckabee's help.

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