While Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee slug it out for first place in the Iowa GOP caucuses tomorrow night, I'll be watching to see whether John McCain finishes third. The political health of the candidate who only recently was thought to be dead and buried is surely the best subplot in the '08 Republican saga.
The latest polls suggest that McCain - who has stumped in Iowa only sporadically, and who virtually ignored the state when he first ran in 2000 - might actually grab the third rung, and thus pick up a tailwind as he heads east, to the friendlier turf of New Hampshire, where he is now reportedly tied with Romney for the top slot in the Jan. 8 primary.
Winning the bronze medal in Iowa would be a big story, if only because it would demonstrate McCain's potential appeal to disillusioned GOP voters as the least objectionable candidate. And a third-place finish would further roil the unusually fluid Republican race.
This would be especially true if Huckabee beats Romney in Iowa tomorrow night, despite the latter's huge financial and organizational advantages. A wounded Romney would be ill-positioned to win New Hampshire, where McCain has surged after trailing Romney by 15 points a mere six weeks ago. And a triumphant McCain, buoyed by fresh funds raised via the Internet, would be emboldened to fight on in South Carolina and Florida later this month, and in the 21-state demolition derby on Feb. 5. (Indeed, a newly-released national poll, measuring GOP voter sentiment in those 21 states, reports that McCain is now tied for first, with a sliding Rudy Giuilani.)
Given McCain's indifference to Iowa, a third-place finish would be quite an accomplishment. As a candidate in 2000, he skipped the state altogether; he had long opposed giving federal money to Iowa's production of corn-based ethanol - a political no-no - and he figured that he was dead meat in Iowa as a result. This time around, he showed up on occasion, and ran some radio ads, but not much else. And he would appear to be unpalatable to the GOP electorate. A lot of conservative Iowans, like conservatives elsewhere, still think he's too liberal for their taste on issues like immigration, global warming, and stem cell research. Most religious conservatives still don't trust him, recalling how he once assailed a few of their leaders as "agents of intolerance." And some voters, although they are loathe to say it aloud, might be concerned about his age (he'll turn 72 this summer).
Yet he might be carving out a niche as the fallback candidate - the guy with more foreign policy experience than Huckabee (who has none) and Giuliani (who has never even visited Iraq, and who quit the Iraq study group); the guy who flip-flops a lot less than Romney, and seems more authentic anyway; the guy with the compelling personal story who quickens the pulse more than, say, the pulse-challenged Fred Thompson. And, on the affirmative side of the ledger, he could attract some fiscal conservatives who like his consistent opposition to earmarked pork, and he could attract hawkish Republicans who agree with his longstanding argument that the war has been incompetently executed.
It's noteworthy that McCain has managed stay alive after losing his high-priced hired helpers, all of whom quit his campaign six months ago. No longer the designated GOP establishment frontrunner, McCain seems a lot more comfortable living off the land, behaving more as an anti-establishment insurgent, operating on a wing and a prayer.
If, tomorrow night, Iowa caucus-goers give him the boost he needs to win New Hampshire, this would not automatically mean that he is destined to win the GOP nomination. Hardly. Even with a fresh infusion of funds, he would have to do battle with Romney's war chest and personal wealth. But if McCain can sustain his candidacy beyond New Hampshire and into the second round of states, he will sharpen the intramural GOP debate, forcing the party's grassroots voters to ponder this question:
Is it better to nominate a moneyed weathervane who markets himself as an orthodox establishment Republican (Romney), a 9/11 "hero" with a lot of baggage (Giuliani), an ordained pastor who attributes his polling rise to God's will and who as governor paroled murderers out of Christian compassion (Huckabee), an antiwar insurgent who's out of step with the party on the war issue (Ron Paul), a snooze who's better off sticking to TV (Thompson)...or McCain, who consistently polls as the most electable candidate, in part because he does not play as an orthodox establishment Republican?