Arizona Sen. John McCain has clinched the Republican presidential nomination and can prepare for the fall campaign. Democrats are locked in a tight two-way race which will not be resolved until their August convention in Denver. Right? Not necessarily. Maybe even wrong.
McCain seemed on easy street after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's surprising suspension of his candidacy the day after last week's Super Tuesday contests, Feb. 5, in which he ran second to McCain. However, McCain has a world of problems he may not be able to overcome.
McCain's best interests would have been served by a continued Romney candidacy, thus enabling him to rack up victories, week by week, over both Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in three-way primary and caucus contests. Huckabee beat McCain last weekend in both Louisiana and Nebraska and almost beat him here in Washington. Romney would have done the same had Huckabee, rather than he, withdrawn last week. Fact is: McCain will remain hard-pressed to defeat any other Republican candidate in a two-way race and could limp onward in embarrassment, splitting with Huckabee one contest to the next.
McCain just plain lacks a base in his own party. His voting record is conservative, but he has crossed conservatives on immigration, campaign finance reform, and social issues. Moreover, within his party, he is seen as a guy who habitually has crossed his own president to gain political advantage for himself. McCain has drawn recent endorsements from GOP officeholders and big shots who believe he is the Republican with the best chance to win a general election against either Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois or Hillary Clinton of New York. Polling data indeed show McCain with strength among independent and some Democratic voters – mainly on the basis of his reputation as a maverick, straight-talking guy. But polling data are ephemeral.
National security and the economy are the two big issues in any presidential election. McCain is hostage to circumstance on both issues. He hitched himself irrevocably last year to the "surge" strategy in Iraq, which has established at least temporary stability there. But that situation could change at any moment between now and the November election. A setback in Iraq would be a big setback for McCain. Moreover, during his campaign McCain has confessed to general ignorance of economic and financial issues. No one has pressed him on it to date. But if the economy falls into recession, you can be sure both media and the opposition will press him mercilessly.
Romney, it should be noted, suspended rather than ended his campaign. That will enable him to keep his delegates and to keep his name on the ballot in upcoming primaries and caucuses – even though he will not be actively campaigning. Former Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas did that in 1992, after a few primary contests, but continued to get strong vote totals as Democratic voters began to be disenchanted with the frontrunner, then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Tsongas had sufficient leverage at the convention that year to gain passage of his own economic-policy platform planks over Clinton's.
Worst case for McCain: Things go wrong both in Iraq and in the economy, Huckabee continues to dog him in the primaries, and Romney reactivates his candidacy just before or at the Republican convention.
Don't get me wrong. The odds still favor McCain as the GOP nominee. But events beyond his control still could cost him the nomination or, if he is nominated, leave him as vulnerable as Sens. Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, in 1964 and 1972, in the general election.
Obama won the majority of delegates chosen this past weekend in Washington, Nebraska, Louisiana, and Maine and has momentum going into Tuesday's District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia primaries, on Feb. 12. He is favored to gain a majority of votes and delegates in all three. Hillary Clinton badly needs a strong showing in at least one of those contests to slow Obama.
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