WHILE Hillary Clinton is looking like a sure bet for her party’s nomination, only the reckless would wager their own money on the likely Republican nominee. With the presence of Fred Thompson and the absence of Newt Gingrich, the GOP field is now complete–and completely without a conventional frontrunner. Its fluidity has prompted a second look by the rank and file: Republicans seeking to keep their party’s base intact, while appealing to independents in order to have a shot at defeating Hillary, are taking another look at John McCain.
A veteran GOP congressional aide who has been a critic of McCain, most recently on the issue of immigration, recently surprised himself by concluding that the Arizona senator would be the best general-election candidate. This strategist seeks a nominee who will unify and energize the base, who has the potential to win, and who makes fellow Republicans competitive. He notes that McCain is pro-life and strong on national security, and has long been in favor of fiscal restraint. In addition to unifying social, economic, and national-security conservatives, he argues, McCain has a maverick image that can appeal to the independent voters who abandoned the GOP in droves in 2006.
The Christian-conservative leaders toying with the ruinous idea of a third-party challenge represent the legitimate concern that the nomination of Rudy Giuliani would fracture the winning coalition that has prevailed in five of the last seven presidential elections. The coalition includes both evangelicals and ethnic Catholics who have backed Republican candidates based on their positions on social and cultural issues rather than on tax policy or national security.
In a year when Democrats are heavily favored to win the White House, many conservatives are unwilling to experiment with the notion that a wholly new coalition, with fewer social and cultural conservatives, will coalesce around a socially liberal Northeast Republican. No such candidate has been recently elected statewide, even in the Northeast.
Giuliani enjoys a persistent perch at the top of the national polls, while the resistance to his candidacy remains equally persistent. Pollster Scott Rasmussen notes that the former mayor’s support is less than 30 percent and doubts that it can grow by much. (Hillary Clinton’s lead is far more formidable, besting her nearest competitor by 30 points in some national polls.) Republican voters obviously know Giuliani as “America’s Mayor,” a hero of 9/11–but despite this positive image as a tested, tough leader, a large majority of Republicans resist him. Even his supporters aren’t well-informed about his positions: A September CBS/New York Times poll found that only 41 percent of those who favored Giuliani for the nomination knew that he is pro-choice on abortion. National polling by Pew Research has found that only 4 out of 10 Republicans nationwide are able to identify his abortion position. It is hard to imagine his support growing among conservative voters, given what they will come to learn about both his liberal views on social issues and his operatic personal life.
Many Republicans are also doubtful of Mitt Romney’s ability to unify and energize the Republican base. Some worry about the recent vintage of his conservative views on abortion, gay rights, and guns. Others note the regrettable but real resistance to a Mormon candidate on the part of some evangelicals. If a significant number of these people stay home because they reject the appeal that the former governor shares their values, if not their faith, other Republican candidates will also pay a price for their prejudice.
While Fred Thompson’s record and platform should be able to unify the GOP base, it is unclear whether he will prove to have the fortitude and drive John McCain displayed in 2000. McCain’s present underdog campaign is marked by that same energy and determination. The initial bounce in the polls that met Thompson’s entry into the race has been slipping away. Some have predicted a “Fred fizzle” that Scott Rasmussen is not yet willing to declare; John McCain is the candidate most likely to benefit from a second look by Fred Thompson’s supporters, should it appear his candidacy is not as viable as they had hoped.
When the false assumptions that the case for Giuliani rests on are stripped away, McCain emerges as the stronger candidate. According to Giuliani’s supporters, the fact that he has the best chance to beat Hillary is chief among the former mayor’s attributes. He is leading the pack in part because plenty of Republicans share this mistaken view. A late September NBC/Wall Street Journal poll revealed that 47 percent of GOP primary voters think Giuliani is their best bet against Hillary. Giuliani topped Thompson and McCain as the most competitive general-election candidate by 30 points.
But this impression is flatly contradicted by the candidates’ standings in head-to-head match-ups: In the average of polling results compiled by RealClearPolitics, McCain is the most competitive candidate against Hillary. In recent polling, Hillary has been beating Giuliani by a margin of 6.2 points; her winning margin against McCain is 4.7 points.
Giuliani’s backers argue that his candidacy would put Northeast states like Pennsylvania in play and boost Republican prospects in other battleground states such as Ohio. But, again, recent polling indicates that Giuliani is no more competitive than McCain in these states. An October poll by Quinnipiac University found Hillary beating both Giuliani (48-42) and McCain (48-41) in Pennsylvania, and in Ohio as well (46-40 against Giuliani and 48-38 against McCain, with the difference within the poll’s margin of error). Giuliani and McCain poll virtually the same against Hillary in Florida: She wins 46-43. Both candidates clearly benefit from being the most widely recognized Republicans.
Based on the false assumption that Giuliani is the most competitive candidate against Hillary Clinton, the false choice offered Republican voters is to back either the candidate most likely to win or the candidate they most agree with on the issues. But based on current polling, McCain is as likely to win as Giuliani–and his positions on the issues are in closer accord with those of Republican voters.
Republicans are also being told that during these perilous times they should be willing to prioritize a concern with national security over social issues. Voters need not make that tradeoff if they support McCain, who has both a pro-life record and more national-security experience than Giuliani.
McCain is a conservative whose heterodox views on campaign-finance reform and immigration are shared by the more liberal Giuliani. With the defeat of the “comprehensive” immigration bill he championed, McCain recognizes that the public demands concrete enforcement measures–and he now pledges to secure the border before pressing for the legalization of illegal aliens. (He will, of course, have to convince conservatives that he is a genuinely reformed reformer committed to an “enforcement first” agenda.)
Finally, McCain is in a long-term, stable second marriage and talks to all his children, although not as frequently as he would like. One son is a midshipman at the Naval Academy and another is an enlisted Marine serving in Iraq.
Should Republicans reject the false choices being offered–and make a considered choice based on the man and the merits–a second look could give John McCain a second chance.