Fourth-place finish in Memphis shows McCain’s no front-runner

Posted: Mar 15, 2006 12:52 PM
Fourth-place finish in Memphis shows McCain’s no front-runner

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is destined to find that his love of the Republican Party will be unrequited.

His dismal showing in the recent Nashville straw poll underscores the fact that while he is the Democrats’ and independents’ favorite Republican, he’s not the Republicans’ top choice by a long shot. Twenty years of independence, courage, creativity and conscience will do that for you (as Joe Lieberman is finding out across the aisle).

You can’t be a front-runner for your party’s nomination and win 5 percent of the vote in a regional straw poll, finishing fourth, behind Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Virginia Sen. George Allen. While McCain still leads in the national polls (not counting former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani), he is no genuine front-runner. He lacks the requisite enthusiasm he would need among core Republicans to cop that title.

He is, in fact, more of a stalking horse, a place to store voter preferences while the other candidates for the nomination break through their low thresholds of name recognition.

It’s a shame because McCain and Giuliani are the only two frequently mentioned candidates who could actually get elected and defy the likely disaster the GOP faces in ’08.

Giuliani, for his part, is even less likely than McCain to win the nomination. His pro-choice, pro-gun-control, pro-affirmative-action, pro-gay-rights, pro-immigration positioning is enough to give the party ulcers. The support he now shows in polls he gets just because the party faithful only see him in terms of his splendid 9/11 record.

None of the remaining candidates has a prayer to win the general election, although they are likely party-line enough to win the nomination. But their long histories of party loyalty and fealty to the right-wing agenda will do little to attract the swing voters of the next election: Hispanics and women.

After the Republican Party gets shellacked in the congressional elections of 2006, the wisdom of nominating someone who can attract votes outside the Republican base will become increasingly apparent. And none of the candidates other than McCain or Giuliani can do so.

Frist, ethically compromised at the outset, has shown his limitations too graphically as majority leader to hope for the nomination. The fact that he could only get 1 vote in 3 in a straw poll in his backyard tells us something.

Romney probably carries enough baggage with him from Massachusetts to make his pursuit of the Republican nomination futile. You cannot be elected governor of the People’s Republic and hope to keep your positions conservative enough to win the Republican nomination.

George Allen, the creature of the party’s right wing, could win the nomination but not the election. Hillary would chew him up and spit him out.

Which brings us back to the candidate who wasn’t there — Condoleezza Rice. Moving up in the polls (now tied with Rudy and McCain for first place), Rice could both be nominated and elected. Her ability to handle herself on an international stage is increasingly obvious, and her more authentic claim to the title of self-made woman than the phony, Bill-dependent résumé of Mrs. Clinton both are making her more and more attractive nationally.

The first phase of the GOP campaign will feature the fall from the top of McCain and, if he runs, Giuliani. The next phase will be characterized by doubts as to whether any of the remaining candidates are up to the task. And then, if the GOP voters are smart, they will draft the only winning candidate they could nominate, the secretary of state.

Or they won’t, and Hillary will be the next president. Nobody said Republican primary voters were very sensible.