Monday, December 11, 2006

Maverick to Front Runner

As a rallying cry. "Common sense conservatism" doesn't have quite the ring of "Straight Talk Express." But the new slogan on the website of John McCain's presidential exploratory committee--a slogan he manages to repeat at least three times in every speech he gives these days--tells you all you need to know about how different this presidential campaign will be from his last one. McCain '08 will be a bigger, more conventional operation--a tank, not a slingshot. The prevailing wisdom about McCain used to be that his bipartisan appeal would make him a sure bet in a presidential race--if only he could get past the Republican primary. But as more and more of the party establishment climb aboard a campaign that McCain has not yet even formally launched, it's starting to look as if the opposite may be true. By trying to become the perfect candidate for the primaries, McCain could be creating difficulties for himself in a general election.
His hard-line position on Iraq is a perfect case in point. McCain has continued to press for more troops there, and spent last week dismissing the Iraq Study Group recommendation to bring them home as nothing short of a recipe for defeat. That's the kind of strong, consistent hawkishness that G.O.P. primary voters look for. "Besides," says McCain strategist Mark Salter, "it's what he believes." The problem is that exit polls in last month's election said only 17% of voters overall share that view, which could leave the other 83% wondering whether McCain's famous independent streak, so appealing on most issues, would be such a good thing to have in a Commander in Chief who has the power to take the country to war. Already there are signs that his image is taking a hit. In the CBS/New York Times poll, McCain's favorability rating slid 6 points, to 28%, between January and September. By Karen Tumulty

It will be interesting to see how McCain attempts to walk the fine line between being conservative enough to get nominated and being independent enough to draw bipartisan support and get elected. Of course he could simply run in the mode of the latest Republican candidates as a neo-conservative only concerned with the support of his base, but as we saw in the latest elections that strategy may not be as sure fire as it once was.


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