Things Continue to Fall in Place for John McCain

by Stuart Rothenberg April 3, 2006 · 12:05 AM EDT

It’s still a long time until the Iowa caucuses formally kick off the 2008 race for the White House. But it’s hard not to conclude that events are lining up perfectly for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), should he decide to make another run.

A weakened President Bush and a damaged Republican Party are more likely than not to convince GOP activists around the country — including some conservatives and party regulars who ordinarily would not warm to McCain — that the Arizona Republican is the only man who can carry the party’s banner in 2008.

The threat of a Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) presidency has always been McCain’s ace in the hole. Even conservatives who worry about McCain’s independent streak — including the Arizona Republican’s support for campaign finance reform and his co-sponsorship (with Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, no less) of a guest worker program — might well find McCain preferable to a Clinton victory.

Even if Democrats bypass the New York Senator and turn to an allegedly “more electable” moderate such as former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, many Republicans may come to believe that only McCain can keep the White House in GOP hands.

What nobody has yet commented on, however, is how the 2006 midterm elections now seem all but destined to boost McCain’s presidential prospects.

Democrats are headed for significant gains in both chambers of Congress in November. Even if they fail to win control in at least one chamber, they are likely to be seen as the clear winners and Bush and his party as the clear losers on Election Day.

That result, no doubt, would produce a wave of stories about the GOP’s troubles, with columnists, politicians (Democratic and Republican) and TV talking heads yammering on about the Republican Party’s demise. There would be plenty of talk about infighting within the party, and there would be even more punditry about how the Republicans are in a sorry state just two years before the next presidential election.

The election results, in other words, are likely to increase panic among some Republicans, who will fear that the Democrats’ success in running on a message of change during the midterm elections is an omen of things to come in ’08.

This kind of reaction from Republicans and the media is likely to enhance McCain’s attractiveness as a presidential candidate. The more gloom and doom surrounding his party, the better McCain looks. The more the GOP needs to counterpunch with its own message of change, reform and leadership, the more attractive McCain appears to Republicans, independents and even some Democrats.

Even Republican critics of the Arizona Senator agree that McCain has broad general election appeal, and his primary foes would have a harder time rallying their fellow Republicans against him if the only thing standing between Democratic control of the entire federal government is McCain.

Remember, the ranks of Senators up for re-election in 2008 include 21 Republicans and only 12 Democrats, giving Democrats an engraved invitation to win a majority in the Senate if they can put together sizable gains this November. You can bet that virtually all of those Republicans would like to have McCain running with them at the top of the Republican ticket.

McCain will be in much demand this year, as Republican incumbents look to inoculate themselves on issues such as ethics, government spending and even the war.

Ethics, government transparency and political corruption could well grow as issues over the next couple of years, especially if Democrats take the House in November and begin to use their powers to scrutinize the Bush administration and other Republicans. Again, McCain, known as an advocate of campaign finance reform, looks like the best antidote for the GOP.

Timing is everything in politics, and while McCain has been making himself more acceptable to Bush loyalists by standing with the president’s general approach to Iraq and the war on terrorism, the administration’s problems and the president’s weakness also have been combining to enhance the Arizona Republican’s appeal within his own party.

How far has McCain come to be accepted by religious conservatives in his party? He will be the graduation speaker at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in May.

These are very good times for McCain, whose military background and reputation as a reformer and a straight shooter seem a perfect fit for the issues of the day and the Republican Party’s current problems. And that’s why he has emerged as the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, overtaking my initial favorite, Virginia Sen. George Allen.