John McCain is starting to look like the candidate to beat for the GOP nomination. Not long ago, he was dismissed, unable to compete with Rudy Giuliani's star power. But with New Hampshire, the tortoise has overtaken the hare.
If McCain wins Michigan on Tuesday (as he did in 2000), Rudy may find himself so far behind before he starts to run that he can never catch up.
McCain could even beat Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. His record taps into a latent populism that attracts Republicans, Democrats and Independents. His battle against big tobacco, efforts to address global warming, opposition to torture during interrogations and fight to reform corporate governance and to protect investors and pensioners appeal to voters of all stripes.
His issues cut across party and ideological lines, for an attraction far broader than the single notes sung by the evangelical Mike Huckabee and the anti-terror Giuliani. His heroism is apparent and his independence from special interests notable. He's pro-life and suitably conservative on social issues, so he attracts conservatives as well as moderates. And his credentials on terrorism and other national-security issues are outstanding.
He's got two main obstacles to overcome: his support for amnesty for illegal immigrants and his age.
* McCain denies that he backed amnesty (citing the fines that illegals would've had to pay to regularize their status under his bill), but conservatives have pinned the label on him so indelibly that it's unlikely to come off no matter how hard he scrubs.
Ultimately, though, he can likely transcend the nativist vote and appeal to the broad spectrum of Republicans. Polls indicate that nobody really believes it is feasible to deport 11 million people back to their home nations. If we can't do that, they'll linger on our streets and in our fields forever, as illegal tomorrow as they are today, unless we move to meet them halfway.
The Pat Buchanans of the world will split their votes between Mitt Romney and Huckabee, so this negative is not likely to prove any more lethal in Michigan, New York or California than it was in New Hampshire.
* His age is a bigger problem. The New Hampshire and Iowa contests were animated by record turnouts. One Granite State voter in five had never voted before in a primary. (Obama carried them by 20 points.) An incredible 11 percent of voters were under 24. (Obama won them, 3 to 1.) With young people storming the polls, a 71-year-old candidate labors under a huge handicap.
But consider his competition: Giuliani, who draws from the same well, has squandered his early lead in what can only be described as a determined passivity. Fred Thompson is also catatonic.
And each primary provides more proof of how how unattractive voters find Romney. Despite massive spending and a field organization with all the efficiency and busy-tailed enthusiasm of a good car-rental company, he still can't sell because people don't like him. His vast checkbook will let him linger on past Michigan, but he loses traction with each balloting.
Huckabee has yet to show an ability to transcend social-conservative issues. His pledge to repeal the IRS and instead adopt a fair tax (i.e., a national sales tax) might help him "go secular," but until he achieves that, he's just a regional candidate - a good vice president pick, not top-tier material.
For the general election, McCain is unique among the GOP field because he can attract centrist votes. He's every Democrat's and independent's favorite Republican. He doesn't have Rudy's hard edges or family problems, and he knows how to push a lot of populist hot buttons, from CEO pay to credit-card overcharges to hedge-fund tax shelters to subprime chicanery.
Being able to win doesn't mean he will win. But McCain is clearly back