For McCain, This Could Be as Good As It’s Going to Get

by Stuart Rothenberg April 24, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

Republicans are feeling their oats these days.

Democratic Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) are battling it out for their party’s nomination, arguing about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the meaning of Clinton’s inaccurate recollections about her trip to Bosnia many years ago, and whether Obama was condescending toward gun owners and the religious in explaining how rural voters deal with what he termed their bitterness.

And then there are the polls, which show Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) very competitive in the presidential race against either Democrat and able to take advantage of a potentially damaging crack in the Democratic coalition.

Some surveys show McCain ahead of the two Democrats, while others show him trailing by a couple of points. But it doesn’t matter which ones are correct. For Republicans, many of whom thought that 2008 could be a presidential blowout of cosmic proportions for the Democrats, a close race for the White House is more than they even expected.

Yes, more and more Republicans (and, remarkably, even some Democrats) agree, McCain might very well win in November by attracting downscale, white Democrats against Obama and by taking advantage of the Illinois Democrat’s inexperience and liberalism.

But those same Republicans who suddenly feel optimistic about their chances of retaining the White House ought to remember that McCain has a long campaign ahead, and Democrats will eventually be united and aiming their fire at the Arizonan.

Right now, the presidential election resembles a three-way political contest where two of the hopefuls are attacking each other daily, while the third candidate benefits. We’ve all seen it before in House and Senate races.

Clinton must attack to try to damage Obama, and Obama cannot merely ignore the attacks. Ignoring Clinton might allow her criticisms to stick and to define him. Even worse, ignoring the attacks would make it easier for Clinton to argue that the Illinois Senator is too passive to stand up to general election attacks by Republicans. So Obama has to respond, even if he’d rather not.

Because Clinton and Obama spend most of their time criticizing each other, or responding to criticism, they both often look small and petty, and like typical politicians. Voters don’t like that.

While Clinton and Obama fight it out, McCain stays above the fray looking like a leader, even a president. He can follow a script that he’s created rather than one dictated by his opponent. He can give big, serious speeches and avoid journalists’ questions about polls and process.

McCain’s recent improvement in the polls all but destroys the argument, made by some immediately after he locked up the Republican nomination, that he would be hurt by the lack of media attention. He is polling better because he isn’t part of the daily Democratic squabble.

But this dynamic is likely to change when Democrats finally have a nominee, whether it is in May or June, or even July. And at that point, the going will get tougher for the de facto GOP nominee.

McCain almost certainly is the best candidate the GOP could nominate this year, but he has more than enough vulnerabilities and liabilities for Democrats to exploit. And exploit them they will, whether at the conventions, during the inevitable debates or in the crucial post-Labor Day period.

McCain’s greatest strength is his image, and that’s likely to be eclipsed, at least somewhat, as the campaign progresses and he must react to charges about his voting record and issues on which he has agreed with an unpopular sitting president.

Democrats still have national issues in their favor. The war remains unpopular, and the economy is weak. McCain talks about the war in Iraq and against Islamic extremists with great passion, and he begins the contest with great credibility on matters that involve the military and national security. But he has simply not demonstrated the same facility or intensity when discussing economic matters.

And at some point, McCain will once again come under the microscope. He’ll say something contradictory. He’ll make a mistake. He’ll offend someone or some group. Indeed, if he doesn’t, it means that he’s probably trying to play things too safe. That’s not when McCain is at his most genuine and appealing.

My point is not that McCain will lose in November, or that Republicans don’t have reasons for optimism. Four or five months ago, the presidential contest looked like a foregone conclusion, while now it looks very competitive.

But it’s a mistake to focus too much on the current happenings. There will be plenty of ups and downs for both parties between now and November. The biggest tests for McCain still lie ahead.