If John McCain wins the Michigan primary tonight, resist the temptation to confer upon him the title of prohibitive Republican frontrunner. Many grassroots conservatives and Republican establishment leaders remain downright hostile to the guy, and a strong showing in Michigan would do nothing to ease their concerns.
McCain has yet to demonstrate that he can garner major support from the Republican base. He won New Hampshire in 2000 and 2008, thanks largely to the votes he attracted from independents and crossover Democrats. He also won Michigan in 2000, again because, like New Hampshire, the Michigan rules allow independents and Democrats to participate. Therefore, a win tonight, or a close second to native son Mitt Romney, will be dismissed by his detractors as fresh evidence of his ongoing unattractiveness to the party base.
Indeed, his GOP critics, citing his frequent dissents from party orthodoxy, seem increasingly determined to block his path to the nomination (assuming that they can, since they'd need to settle on a palatable alternative). The other day, for instance, I heard a radio diatribe from Rick Santorum, the former number-three Senate Republican leader. Conversing with conservative talk-show host Mark Levin, the ex-Pennsylvania senator insisted that a President McCain would be "very, very dangerous for Republicans," because McCain's first instinct "would be to go to the (Democratic) side to solve a problem instead of trying to find like-minded Republicans to come up with solutions."
In Santorum's view, a classic example of McCain's tendency to "act like a Democrat" was his bid to pass the immigration reform bill that would have established a path to citizenship for illegals. A day before talking with radio-host Levin, Santorum told radio-host Hugh Hewitt: "John McCain was the guy who was working with Ted Kennedy to drive it down our throats, and lectured us repeatedly about how xenophobic we were, lectured us - us being the Republican (senators) - about how wrong we were on this, how we were on the wrong side of history."
And that's just for starters. The GOP establishment is still ticked that McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, and they don't like his current explanation for why he voted that way. Indeed, McCain's explanation is somewhat disingenuous. He says today that he opposed the tax cuts because there were no provisions to also reduce spending, but that's not what he was saying back in 2000, when he first opposed candidate Bush's proposed tax cuts. At that time, he stressed mainly that the cuts would benefit the rich at the expense of the middle class - an argument that radio host Levin remembers as "socialist, class-warfare rhetoric."
The list of anti-McCain grievances - compiled by Republican establishment groups, personalities and press organs ranging from the American Conservative Union and Rush Limbaugh to the National Review - includes: his opposition to drilling for oil in Alaska; his support for regulations that would combat global warming; his support for closing the Guantanamo Bay prison; his refusal to sign a no-tax-hike pledge; his Senate investigations of lobbyist-felon Jack Abramoff and his frequent partner in money-making, former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed; his refusal to support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; his opposition to the big pharmaceutical companies; and many more.
Says Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online, "For a movement that has spent a year pining for Ronald Reagan, John McCain is a very odd choice to settle on early." Says David Keene, leader of the American Conservative Union, "It's not conceivable that (McCain) could come out of this nomination fight or the national convention with the kind of enthusiastic support he is going to need for the general election."
Keene may be getting ahead of himself. McCain still needs to win some big GOP primaries where grassroots conservative voters predominate - for instance, California, which votes this year on Feb. 5, and which drove a stake into the heart of McCain's candidacy eight years ago. Colorado is also a sizeable prize on Feb. 5, and the rules there prohibit crossover voters.
But the GOP establishment's big problem is that it can't agree on a stop-McCain candidate. Romney has yet to escape from the hole that he shoveled for himself, and convince voters that he's more than the sum of his marketing calibrations. Mike Huckabee has to show strength beyond his evangelical conservative base (although his anti-Wall Street rhetoric makes him less palatable to the establishment than even McCain). Fred Thompson has to stop flatlining. And Rudy Giuliani, who seems to alienate voters the more they see him, has to stop sliding like a bad tech stock in the 2000 crash.
Santorum, surveying the field last week on Fox News, said that "if you look at the candidates, all have serious problems. I think, it's my prediction, I think we're headed for a brokered convention. I don't think we're going to get a nominee." (Every four years, somebody always insists that a party is headed for a brokered convention. The only place you'll find a brokered convention is in novelist Richard North Patterson's new political thriller...although it's true that the protagonist is partly modeled on McCain.)
As a stopgap measure - indeed, considering the fluid nature of the GOP race, all current thinking is short-term - the establishment will be rooting in Michigan tonight for a decisive Romney victory. That would put the race back at square one, and provide some brief respite for McCain's foes, as they search anew for an alternative.
One would think they might want to check the latest national polls, which show that McCain's crossover appeal makes him the most electable Republican in a tough election year, but no. The game of politics is often highly personal, McCain has riled a lot of Republicans, and his critics dearly want to pay him back. This may not sound like a blueprint for party victory in November, but that election feels like light years away. Right now, the McCain forces, pro and con, are focused merely on the foxholes they're living in.