Joel Mowbray

In the week since Sen. John McCain’s high-profile speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, movement activists and icons have debated the merits of the man who has charted the most unusual path to the GOP nomination in recent history. While most candidates appeal to their bases in the primary, and then tack to the center for the general election, McCain has succeeded largely on his strength with independents and moderates and now must garner enthusiastic conservative backing to win in November.

Though the Arizona Republican undeniably faces an uphill battle, capturing the conservative base is not unthinkable. But to do so, promoting fear of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will be insufficient. He must provide an exciting rationale for conservatives to rally behind him — and he laid the foundations for it last week at CPAC.

With the cross-currents of conservative disaffection, a bitter feud on the Democratic side, and a possible economic slowdown on the horizon, the next nine months promise plenty of chaos for McCain. But one far less chaotic area — Iraq — could pave his path to victory.

In interviews with over 100 conservatives at CPAC last week, few argued that McCain was good enough by simply not being Obama or Clinton. McCain clearly needs to contrast himself with his eventual opponent, but it needs to be in the context of why conservatives would relish his Presidency, not merely tolerate it.

McCain tried to fire up conservatives by highlighting areas of agreement, from constitutionalist judges to permanently extending the Bush tax cuts he originally opposed. But even the most compelling laundry list is not enough. Conservatives don’t trust McCain — a far more difficult barrier to hurdle.

This is where Iraq could be McCain’s secret weapon.

Part of what enabled McCain to attract enough conservatives to advance this far toward the nomination was his repeated pledge to see the war through to victory. Conventional wisdom, though, is that now he must turn his focus elsewhere, as the war won’t be a winning issue outside the GOP primary.

Yet framing the race around Iraq through the spring and summer might be McCain’s best shot at a November victory. No matter who wins the Democratic contest, McCain’s general-election opponent will have pledged a pullout from Iraq within months of taking office. While such a commitment was politically popular a year ago, it now creates substantial vulnerability for Obama or Clinton.

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mowbray, who got his start with, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.

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