Back from the Dead Again: McCain Rising

Political journalists all too often get caught up in the day-to-day momentum of a race and have short memories, making them poor judges of character.  A few months back, John McCain's run for the GOP Presidential nomination was considered to be all but over, with perhaps a chance for a decent finish in New Hampshire (a state where he won the GOP primary contest in 2000), but no money to sustain a run through the big state primaries. In a particularly savage assessment of McCain on this website, a partisan for Fred Thompson, said this of McCain:

"John McCain's candidacy may not be dead, but then again, neither is Ariel Sharon. McCain has been at war with the Republican Party for a decade. The idea that he could win the GOP's presidential nomination was never more than a fantasy. His presence in the race will soon become an embarrassment, if it isn't one already."
Mocking two war heroes from two nations in a single sentence is a real feat. But predicting an inauguration of President Fred Thompson on January 20 2009, as this author did, now looks ridiculous. Thompson has  marshaled all his meager resources for a last ditch effort to gain some traction in Iowa. But a new poll yesterday shows McCain doubling his support in Iowa to 14%, now standing third in that state, and a strong second in New Hampshire at 27%, within 4 points of Mitt Romney .

Fred Thompson is nowhere to be found among the leaders in either state, tied for 4th at 8% in Iowa, and in 6th place at 3% in New Hampshire. Pollsters are  no longer  even conducting surveys of Thompson versus potential Democratic nominees in a general election run.  Ron Paul is regarded as a better bet to be nominated than Thompson . 

John McCain, who survived years of brutal captivity in North Viet Nam, is not a quitter. The GOP race is fracturing, with many social conservatives aligning with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee to put him near the top of the race, and the other contenders now bunched closely together, with Rudy Giuliani losing most of his lead in national polls, and Mitt Romney slipping in Iowa and New Hampshire, but gaining in national surveys.  With other campaigns and critics slamming Huckabee for his record on taxes and inexperience on matters of national security, and sniping at each other as well, suddenly, John McCain looks a lot more palatable as a compromise candidate -- a pro life conservative, who is  an experienced leader on national security issues.  Then add in the character factor, and the recent McCain spurt seems real.

Analysts often debate or speculate about the power of endorsements or editorial support in state or national races. Lots of column inches were dedicated to the impact on the Obama-Hillary race of Oprah Winfrey campaigning in three states last weekend for Obama.  But the endorsement by Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman of John McCain this week, is, I think a bigger deal than Oprah backing Obama.  So too, the National Review's endorsement of Mitt Romney is the closest thing to a conservative seal of approval out there, and has clearly helped Romney's effort nationally.

Lieberman was savaged by many in his own party last year and won re-election as an independent (after losing the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont) on the votes of Republicans, conservative Democrats and independents. Many on the left viewed the defeat of Lieberman as a crusade. He was their biggest single target last year. After all, he did not hate George Bush as they did, and he still supported the Iraq war at a time when it was very unpopular in his own Party. The Stalinist mindset of the hard left requires purging elements of the Party, so that only the faithful remain.

So it is not such a shock that Lieberman has now crossed over to back McCain. As he noted in a telling interview with Chris Matthews, none of the current Democratic Presidential contenders asked for his endorsement. McCain did.

Lieberman's vote for Senate Majority Leader (for Harry Reid) is the reason Democrats now control the Senate.  One might think that Lieberman's show of loyalty to a Party that abandoned him might be returned in some way. He was after all, the Vice Presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in 2000, and it was his popularity and campaign effort  in Florida that created a virtual tie in the state that year, almost delivering the election to Al Gore. 

The Democrats running for President this year are looking for votes and financial support in the primaries from the likes of (the General  Betray Us ad people), leftist unions and single issue groups. Centrists like Lieberman need to be avoided by the Presidential contenders so as not to antagonize the full throated advocates among these groups. 

While Barack Obama has focused his campaign on rising above the mean spirited partisanship in Washington during the last 15 years and getting things done  by lowering the temperature of the discussion, his voting record belies the lofty campaign rhetoric -- both as a state senator in Illinois and now as a United States Senator.  Obama's votes have tended to be down the line with his party, predictably and consistently liberal. If bipartisanship means reaching across the aisle, Obama's voting record  does not show much effort (ask Chief Justice John Roberts, who won the votes of more than 20 Democratic Senators for his confirmation, but not Obama's).

Senators like McCain and Lieberman on the other hand , have gotten in trouble with their party for crossing over at times,  actually behaving in a bipartisan fashion.  If voters in the primaries really want bipartisanship, now they see it in action. Since independents can vote in some of the early  party primaries, it is not surprising that McCain is getting more attention.

Some pundits are now suggesting that if McCain can win New Hampshire and then Michigan (where he is near the lead), he could become the alternative to whoever survives the food fight on the right among Romney, Huckabee and Thompson. 

My guess is that Huckabee will implode (as Walter Mondale might ask: Where's the beef?) and Romney will move on to face off with either McCain or Rudy Giuliani, but not both. If the McCain-Rudy battle is not settled after February 5th, then Romney would be a much more likely winner. At the moment,  McCain has the momentum in this mini-contest, and Rudy is giving ground. But McCain is not as well-positioned as Giuliani, who is also better funded for the big state races on February 5th  and Florida a week earlier.

The tough fight between Clinton and  Obama,  a real  horse race in Iowa (where Edwards is also very competitive), New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and  now tightening nationally,  has exposed weaknesses in both leading candidates on the Democratic side. Some of these weaknesses were pretty glaring even before  the race became more competitive.

Perhaps as a result of this, the potential GOP nominees are running a bit better against either of the leading Democrats than a few weeks back
.  McCain runs the best among the GOP contenders in the head to head races, but not by much. Rudy is just behind and then Romney.  Bob Beckel, a Democratic strategist, and Bill Clinton have both said McCain is the candidate the Democrats least want to face.  They made these comments at a time when the chances of McCain being the nominee seemed remote. Now they are a bit better.  McCain trumps Obama on experience and neutralizes Obama's appeal as a change agent of bipartisanship. McCain trumps Clinton on character and experience.

I think nominating Huckabee would be courting electoral disaster next November.  Romney (and the media)  will likely grind him down to prevent that from happening.  Thompson's chances are better than Huckabee's in a general election, but not by muchand he is not really in the hunt at the moment for the nomination.

All in all, the most confused, and unpredictable race we have seen in decades is getting closer to the official start line, and many candidates think they have a real shot at the prize. It will be a ferocious fight I think. 

Richard Baehr is political director of American Thinker.