John McCain has long enjoyed an aura of inevitability among Beltway elites as he pursues the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. And for some time, buoyed by friendly press stories, it seemed that he might, indeed, succeed in persuading Republicans nationwide that he was the only candidate who could stand between them and electoral disaster. Certainly, many conservatives, especially those in Washington, D.C., were convinced that McCain offered the greatest hope of defeating a formidable Hillary Clinton, and grudgingly put aside their reservations about him for that reason.
A major part of McCain’s appeal to the Beltway conservatives who otherwise disliked him was, of course, his much-canvassed “independent” streak. His appeal to independent voters, Republicans were repeatedly reminded, could prove an asset so valuable that it was worth overlooking all the reasons for conservatives (and his D.C. colleagues) to oppose him: His leadership of the Gang of 14, his stance on immigration, his promotion of campaign finance “reform,” his opposition to some of President Bush’s tax cuts and his outspoken denunciation of alleged “torture” of terrorist detainees – coupled with a knack for showboating and a hunger for media attention that’s voracious even by Beltway standards.
But the well-rehearsed rationales for the rank-and-file to line up behind McCain – focusing on his appeal to independents – may be coming apart at the seams. According to a new American Research Group poll, John McCain’s poll numbers have fallen precipitously in independent-minded New Hampshire; he pulled 49% of the independent vote there in 2000, but is at 29% among independents now. The president of the American Research Group has reported that the same trend is holding in other states, including early primary battlegrounds like Iowa and Nevada.
The reason for the downward spiral is clear: McCain’s support both for the war in Iraq generally and the President’s plan for a troop “surge” in particular is massively unpopular among independents. It is, perhaps, a warning for Republicans that the one issue upon which he has exceeded GOP expectations is representing such a colossal political stumbling block.