In almost every poll, the three front-runners for the Republican nomination in 2008 are Rudy Giuliani, Condi Rice and John McCain.
As Condi has ruled it out and Rudy is a Manhattanite on social and moral issues -- gays, guns, affirmative action and abortion -- McCain, as a conservative maverick and media darling, appeared to have the pole position for the nomination. That no charismatic challenger is visible has seemed to add to the aura of inevitability of John McCain.
But the last six weeks have muddled this picture, and McCain now appears out of step with his party and country. Consider the returns from California of Tuesday last.
Brian Bilbray, a lobbyist who had won 15 percent in the primary to 44 percent for Democratic opponent Francine Busby -- to fill the seat of convicted Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham -- came from behind to win 49-45. Busby's failure suggests the "culture-of-corruption" issue is no sure winner for Democrats this fall. Bad news for Rahm Emanuel, who runs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
But worse news for McCain. For Bilbray attributes his comeback to a relentless assault on the McCain amnesty for illegal aliens that passed the Senate in May and his support for a 2,000-mile fence on the U.S. border from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. So miffed at Bilbray was McCain he canceled a fund-raising appearance.
Not only is McCain the champion of the "indocumentados," he has imputed racist motives to senators who oppose putting illegals on a path to American citizenship. As Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online writes, "McCain uttered on the Senate floor what was probably the worst sentence of the entire debate," when he flippantly asked, "What next -- are we going to say work-authorized immigrants are going to have to ride in the back of the bus?"
This language is redolent of the moral superiority liberals often assumed, which helped to make them insufferable to Middle America.
After comparing opponents of his amnesty bill to defenders of Jim Crow, McCain, says Lopez, at an off-the-record event in New York, allegedly called Rush Limbaugh a "nativist." He then joined the liberal Republicans in voting against a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman.
Not needed, says McCain. But if some U.S. judge declares that the 14th Amendment outlaws state discrimination against gays when handing out marriage licenses, how would McCain overturn the ruling? To the Christian base of the party, protection of marriage is an imperative if we are to slow America's slide into decadence.
While voting no on the marriage amendment will cause McCain's media auxiliary to purr with pleasure at this backhanding of the religious right, how would it have hurt McCain to have voted with his party? He seems more concerned with remaining in the good graces of the Log Cabin club than with the evangelical Christians. To secularists, this is the moral place to stand -- but the GOP is not a secularized institution.
On Iraq, an increasingly unpopular war, McCain remains far more hawkish than Bush and is pushing the president to insult Russia's President Putin by boycotting the July G-8 meeting in St. Petersburg.
Yet one senses Americans are tiring of the endless bellicosity of the Bushites and neoconservatives, which has produced nothing but ill will against us. This was surely not the way of the tough but gracious and genial Ronald Reagan.
But it is the immigration issue that could sink McCain. For it is hard to believe today's GOP and Middle America, which wants the U.S. border sealed with a security fence and troops, will vote for a senator who favors amnesty, voted for welfare benefits for illegal aliens and sponsored with Teddy Kennedy a bill to bring scores of millions of new immigrants in over the next 20 years.
A McCain nomination would sunder the GOP between corporate conservatives and populist conservatives, and might generate a third party movement that could return the country -- to Bill and Hillary.
In Memphis, a month ago, when the Southern and Midwestern GOP parties gathered, a straw poll was held for which McCain was strangely unprepared. To avoid his impending embarrassment, McCain urged the attendees to cast their votes for President Bush. No one was fooled, especially not a political press corps that was out in force.
Since 2000, McCain has seemed the likely successor to George Bush, and to be moving adroitly to address his vulnerabilities as a candidate. Systematically, he repaired his relations with the Bush family, reached out to the Rev. Falwell and the religious right, became the most sought-after speaker at Republican rallies and fund-raisers, has been generous with his time and endorsements, and yet maintained his unique popularity with the media.
But of late, he appears to have re-adopted the persona and re-embraced the sort of ideas that make conservatives feel good about themselves when they vote against him. This thing is wide open.