Just shy of a month ago, after the first votes were cast in Iowa and New Hampshire, it seemed that the Republican Party faced a fluid and fractious nomination contest, while the Democrats faced a clear-cut choice between two not particularly adversarial candidates. What a difference a few weeks can make.
Now it appears that John McCain is on an unobstructed flight path to the nomination, facing a few crosswinds but no serious navigation hazards, while the two leading Democrats, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, are on the collision course, with the winner taking on serious and possibly disabling damage. And this in a year when the standard metrics -- the job performance rating of the president, judgments about the trajectory of the economy, trends in party identification -- have seemed overwhelmingly favorable to the Democrats.
How did this happen? Some will give credit to providence, which saw to it that McCain -- whose candidacy seemed terminal last July 1 -- was able to duplicate, with lesser percentages, his 2000 victory in New Hampshire, then survive a defeat in his best 2000 state, Michigan, then squeeze out a 33 percent to 30 percent victory over Mike Huckabee in South Carolina and a 36 percent to 31 percent victory over Mitt Romney in Florida.
None of which would have been possible without a collapse in Rudy Giuliani's support, which was as widely unpredicted as his earlier rise to the top of the polls. Or without the collapse of the candidacy of 2000 McCain supporter Fred Thompson, who led in polls as a noncandidate but lost the lead before he officially declared.
Even so, McCain now seems a prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination. He leads in just about all the polls in the big states that vote on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5. Giuliani has bowed out, and Huckabee's election night speech reiterated his respect for McCain. Romney alone has the potential to buy enough ads and possibly derail McCain this week. But big-time buys did not win for him in Iowa, New Hampshire or Florida.
In his victory speech, McCain was at pains to pay respect not only to his rivals, but to the concerns of his critics in conservative journals and talk radio. To his undisputed asset as the longtime and persistent advocate of the surge, which has produced such success in Iraq, he added a stern but seldom-before-voiced resolve to appoint judges who would interpret rather than make law. He was paying -- for once, and for the time being anyway -- heed to his critics at National Review and his boosters at The Weekly Standard. Memo to Rush Limbaugh: You have been heard.
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