Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Flight of the phoenix

John McCain, the phoenix of American politics, is now marching with confidence toward the GOP nomination. Barring an unforeseen reversal during the next seven days, he seems well positioned to cement his top-dog status when 20 more states weigh in, from coast to coast, on Feb. 5.

The stars appear to be aligning in accordance with his most fervent wishes:

1. By winning the Florida primary last night, he demonstrated broad support among mainstream GOP voters - under state party rules, only registered Republicans were allowed to vote – and that was critical, because his previous primary victories were powered by independents and crossover Democrats. And he can also brag that he finished on top in the first big state on the primary calendar – and a swing state in the November election.

2. In victory, he can now reasonably argue that he’s more than a one-trick pony. National security is his pet issue, yet the voters favored him by five percentage points over Mitt Romney despite the fact that they cited the economy (not McCain’s strong point) as the overriding issue.

3. Mike Huckabee, the evangelical candidate, helped McCain greatly last night by pulling tens of thousands of evangelical Floridians away from Romney. Absent Huckabee’s presence in the race, many evangelicals (40 percent of the primary electorate) probably would have gravitated toward their backup choice, Romney. And Huckabee plans to stay in the race, trolling for votes and delegates in many of the Feb. 5 states, thereby threatening again to dampen Romney’s vote tallies – and making it easier for McCain to prevail.

4. Rudy "Noun-Verb-9/11" Giuliani bade farewell last night – thereby demonstrating, as many of us had foreseen 10 weeks ago, that his idea to skip all the early primaries and camp out in Florida bordered on the delusional. (He spent in excess of $50 million on his White House quest...and won exactly one delegate. Rudy's candidacy brings to mind that movie scene in The Fugitive, when a derailed train plummets in flames down an embankment.) And this too is good for McCain. Rudy will endorse McCain today, and many of the national-security conservatives who were hoping to vote for Rudy can easily slide over to the like-minded McCain – further buoying McCain’s bullish prospects in Feb. 5 states such as New York, New Jersey, and California.

But McCain is not home free; as the fine print of the Florida exit poll makes clear, he still hasn’t won over the diehard voters on the right. Romney beat him by 10 points among those voters who described themselves as conservative (62 percent of the primary electorate); conversely, McCain was heavily favored by the 28 percent of Republican voters who said they were moderate, the 11 percent who said they were liberal. He was also the strong favorite of those who said they rarely or never attend church, but he was spurned by the devout.

Meanwhile, he was the first choice of those voters who said they’re dissatisfied with President Bush (33 percent of the primary electorate), but the second choice of those who are happy with Bush. He was also the second choice of those who want to
ban abortions, and the second choice of those who want to deport all illegal immigrants. (Regarding the latter item: Hispanics comprised 12 percent of the GOP turnout, and they voted overwhelmingly for McCain. This was the guy who supposedly had no chance to get the GOP nomination, because of his support for giving illegals a path to citizenship. Last night, Republican Hispanics gave him a big boost toward that nomination. He would regard that as poetic justice.)

In other words, the conservative GOP base is not sold on him yet. One question in the days ahead is whether, and to what extent, the base is willing to embrace the guy, its past litany of grievances notwithstanding. This assumes that they have a viable alternative. Mitt Romney can stay in the game, but, in order to do so, he will need to spend more of his kids’ inheritance; to demonstrate that he has an authentic core and is therefore more than just a pandering weathervane; and to somehow convince evangelicals that a vote for Huckabee is a wasted vote, tantamount to a vote for McCain. (When the three survivors will debate on CNN tonight, it will be instructive to see whether Romney tries to marginalize Huckabee.)

Fortunately for Romney, he has the personal bucks for major TV ad buys coast to coast over the next week, while the relatively cash-strapped McCain will be out there scrounging for free media coverage. But McCain excels at the latter, and it’s worth noting that Romney’s saturation of the Florida airwaves – he ran 4475 ads; McCain, a mere 470 – didn’t give him sufficient bang for the buck. As any admaker will tell you, it can be tough to sell a product that consumers don’t want.

So, in a sense, it’s all down to Romney. As he scans the landscape today, he sees McCain poised to sweep the Feb. 5 northeastern states and probably California (where Gov. Schwarzenegger is McCain-friendly). He sees Huckabee still on the trail, working the Feb. 5 southern states (Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas), garnering votes that he badly needs. Where does Romney plant his flag and win (finally, for the first time) a fully contested primary? Will the McCain-haters - including members of the party's corporate establishment - buck him up anyway, and urge him onward? And remember, most of the big contests are "winner take all," which means that you get zilch delegates if you don't finish first.

For now, Romney insists he'll tough it out and try to gather all the McCain-averse voters beneath his banner. On Fox News early this morning, he said: "This has come down to a two-person race. That with Mayor Giuliani out and with Mike Huckabee having done so poorly here in Florida, that the options are me or John McCain, and that will bring a lot of conservatives together, if I'm successful in that effort. And I think in that case, there's a ceiling as to how many votes Senator McCain will get, that's the hope."

Let’s see how long Romney is willing to dip into his deep pockets. Because if he doesn’t, this race is essentially over, and the last man standing will have completed his improbable rise from the political grave.


UPDATE, on the Democratic side:

The headless chicken has toppled over.

John Edwards is pulling out today. I wrote his political obituary a week ago, so there's no need here to revisit the reasons for his demise. The big question now is where his voters are most likely to land.

The common assumption is that his departure will help Barack Obama, since it would appear that he and Obama had been splitting the anti-Hillary vote. But perhaps that's too facile.

Edwards was drawing much of his support from white working-class/blue-collar voters - the same cohort that is strong for Hillary Clinton. One can argue that these voters would never embrace Hillary (since they were drawn to Edwards because of his anti-corporate populism, whereas they probably view Hillary as a corporate establishment Democrat), but voters make choices for all kinds of reasons, and some Edwards supporters might simply view Hillary as tougher and more seasoned than Obama. Some might also be more comfortable breaking the gender barrier than the race barrier. And with respect to a key Democratic issue, Edwards' universal health care plan more closely resembles Hillary's plan than Obama's.

Tellingly, the exit polls in last night's meaningless Florida Democratic primary indicated that Edwards' voters would be equally "satisfied" with either Hillary or Obama as the nominee. On the other hand, perhaps many fans will take their cues from Edwards, who will undoubtedly endorse one of the finalists.

All we can say for certain at the moment is that the CNN Democratic debate tomorrow night - the first one-on-one meeting of Hillary and Obama - could be more riveting than the Super Bowl.