After winning New Hampshire, it’s clear John McCain is resurgent as a leading Republican candidate. Having crossover appeal to gain independent voters already, there are three things that, if McCain does, he could become the next president.
The Arizona senator is in an interesting position, as shown by his five-point margin in New Hampshire. He won a plurality of primary voters in the Granite State, showing that he has a firm foundation on which to build. Mitt Romney, however, won a plurality of conservative Republican base voters in the New Hampshire primary. So, while some potential growth could come from moderates and independents, much of the growth that is needed must come from core GOP voters.
The key to a McCain victory is to appeal to the GOP base without losing his centrist support. He must solidify and energize his party’s base while being the preferred choice of swing voters. It’s a tall order and it would take lots of work, but if he does it then he might take both the nomination and the general.
Mr. McCain’s advisors cannot make the mistake again of taking the base for granted, casting the senator as the inevitable candidate, telling conservative leaders to get onboard while ignoring the deeply-felt priorities of the party faithful. Some took the base for granted, and then when Iraq fatigue set in it was almost enough to finish him.
That’s because there are several factions of the Republican base that have had terrible relations with the senator. He may be able to win early primaries without them, but if he secures the nomination, he simply must become a candidate they can support to energize them, get them contributing and working, and turning out in big numbers. In other words, he might pull off primaries in a divided field without these things, but he needs them for the general election.
The three things for Mr. McCain needs to do in order to mobilize the base while holding the middle are:
First, he must be the agent of change. A big part of what Barack Obama has tapped into is that many millions of Americans want change. Whoever takes the Democrat nomination, that’s their campaign centerpiece. Mr. McCain needs to be the agent of change. And he can emphasize it from what he’s already pushed: Earmarks must end, he’ll veto any appropriations bill with them, and he’ll make their supporters famous. Earmarks have been a big disappointment to the GOP base, people are fed up, and Mr. McCain can end that scourge. He can expand that change theme to entitlements, energy independence, and health care.