Sunday, April 16, 2006

The good reverend's seal of approval

A postscript or two about John McCain, whose rightward repositioning was analyzed today in a newspaper column by yours truly:

McCain's "electability" as a presidential candidate hinges on the assumption that he can still attract a large crossover vote from independents and Democrats. Certainly that was the case during the 2000 GOP primaries; non-Republicans flocked to McCain in both New Hampshire and Michigan, where the rules permit crossover voters. But it's not a cinch bet that he can attract a significant share of those voters as the GOP nominee in 2008 - especially if those voters view the erstwhile straight shooter as a spin doctor for the religious right.

One of his new best friends, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, appeared on CNN today, and it would not be surprising if Falwell's lavish praise for McCain winds up in a Democratic video somewhere down the road. In Falwell's words:

"You know, John McCain is a strong conservative. He's pro- life....His view on family is just where most conservative Christians' views are...And he and I are friends now. And he is speaking May 13."

The latter is a reference to McCain's upcoming appearance as a commencement speaker at Falwell's university in Virginia. The previous two speakers were Karl Rove and Sean Hannity.

It's too early to say whether McCain's popularity among independents and Democrats will be jeopardized by the fact that he is now "friends" with a guy who has declared that the 9/11 attacks were God's retribution for America's tolerance of gays, lesbians, and abortion doctors. Maybe McCain's many repositionings won't matter at all in the end; after all, he's taking all these steps two years away from the election, when the vast majority of Americans probably aren't paying atttention.

But I wonder what accounts for the slide in his popularity, vis a vis Hillary Clinton, over the past two months, as measured by a respected polling operation. Here's what nonpartisan analyst Charlie Cook, who runs the Cook Political Report, wrote yesterday:

"In two Cook Political Report/RT Strategies polls - one taken in late February and the other in early April - McCain received 18 percent of the self-identified 'liberal' vote when matched up against Clinton. But will one in five liberals still support McCain if he continues to assiduously court conservatives? In the latest Cook/RT Strategies poll, which was conducted April 6-9 and has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percent, McCain's lead over Clinton among all adults dropped from 10 points (47 percent to 37 percent) to 5 points. Among registered voters, it dropped from 12 points (48 percent to 36 percent) to 9 points (46 percent to 37 percent). While these shifts aren't huge, the McCain-versus-Clinton spread should be watched closely in coming months..."

Cook seems to be suggesting that McCain's drop might be attributed to his rightward repositioning. I think it's way too early to state it with certainty. Perhaps Cook will find something more definitive later this spring, after McCain appears at Liberty University, sharing the stage May 13 with the man he once assailed as an "agent of intolerance."