A choice for those who rejected McCain initially
Now that John McCain has come back from the dead, the question is whether those Republicans who buried him initially are willing to tolerate his maverick ways because they have no one they like better.
McCain’s victory in the New Hampshire primary puts him an enviable position as the scramble for the Republican presidential nomination moves from the retail stage of the campaign to more delegate-rich contests such as Michigan on Jan. 15, South Carolina on Jan. 22 and Florida on Jan. 29. Then, the 22-state voting orgy waits Feb. 5.
It is worth remembering that the Arizona senator was the front-runner for the nomination when the race began more than a year ago. But his manner, and refusal to adhere to the party orthodoxy, turned off too many GOP activists.
He began the campaign as the establishment choice because Republicans usually nominate the aspirant considered next in line—and because there was no incumbent president or incumbent or previous vice president, he inherited that slot.
But strong opposition to his candidacy among some of the most conservative elements of the Republican Party, who suspected he really was not one of them, cost him dearly.
By last summer, McCain’s campaign was almost broke, and there was serious talk he might throw in the towel. Reporters began writing his political obituary.
Nevertheless, his New Hampshire victory put him back at the top of the pack. Those same folks who rejected him the first time are on the spot.
They can go with one of the other candidates, or decide upon reflection that perhaps McCain isn’t that unacceptable after all—especially given polling data suggesting he might be a stronger candidate in November than many of his competitors.
Given that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s inability to win either Iowa or New Hampshire has badly damaged his candidacy to which many conservatives had flocked, they might not have a lot of more palatable choices.
They can hope former Sen. Fred Thompson—perhaps the most conservative of the remaining candidates—can mount a comeback that would make McCain’s look like a piker. But that hardly seems in the cards.
Or, they can go to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose record and rhetoric on taxes and terrorism makes many economic and foreign policy conservatives very nervous, perhaps even more so than does McCain.
Their other alternative is throwing in their lot with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani who, on a host of issues, is far to the left of McCain, and whose messy personal life makes many of them uncomfortable. Besides, after finishing behind quasi fringe candidate Ron Paul two weeks in a row, Giuliani’s chances for the nomination seem quite small.
Even those who don’t trust McCain can read the polls. During the past few months when McCain was wandering in the Republican wilderness, he retained a strong image with the overall electorate. Both nationally, and in a variety of states, McCain ran better than all but Giuliani, when matched against the potential Democratic contenders.
One source of McCain’s potential electoral strength is his ability—as shown in his New Hampshire victory—to attract independent voters, but in New Hampshire it is worth noting he ran better among just Republicans any of the candidates.
Unaffiliated voters are especially critical to GOP hopes this November because President Bush’s unpopularity has led to a decline in the number of Americans who call themselves Republicans, polls show.
Despite his unpopularity among many GOP activists on the right, McCain’s nomination is not likely to inspire a third-party candidate from the right, as might the nomination of Giuliani. That’s because Giuliani’s support for abortion rights, gay rights and gun control—all of which are in direct opposition to the mainstream position of conservatives—are litmus tests for conservatives.
McCain is with them on those questions, while conservatives are skeptical of him on mainstream matters such as taxes, immigration and more esoteric questions such as campaign finance, which matters to activists but not to the rank-and-file.
The question for those conservatives who rejected McCain the first time around is whether—and how much—they will re-evaluate their view now that the political environment, and their choices, has changed substantially.
It was easy a year before the voting began to say they would rather have Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in the White House, than hold their noses and vote for McCain.
It might be more difficult for them now that it is time to put up or shut up.