Not having ever been all that taken with John McCain, and being intrigued with and hopeful about Fred Thompson's impending bid, Montana Headlines did not particularly mourn McCain's apparent political demise last summer -- although we pointed out that it would be foolish to count McCain out.
And now, things have changed. Fred Thompson has never really showed up to the big-time, and Mike Huckabee unexpectedly filled that "none of the above" slot that Thompson counted on taking.
With Romney in full panic mode and Giuliani starting to be dogged by ethical charges -- and both of them going after each other with gusto for weeks (the latest point has to go to Giuliani, now that it has been shown that Romney's house not only used to be a "sanctuary mansion," but still is) -- well, our one-time front-runners aren't doing so well right now. Romney is still rich and Giuliani is still leading most national polls, but both are showing serious chinks in the armor.
Taking a cold, hard look at the field, it is hard to escape the notion that there may be only one guy who can credibly pull the coalition together for the general election next year. And, amazingly, it may be John McCain.
We say "amazingly," since as we have pointed out before, McCain's has a couple of big weaknesses -- immigration and McCain Feingold -- that would seemingly have ruled him out as a candidate to unite the field, up until quite recently, that is.
Let's run the list and the ways that each candidate has significant portions of the GOP base unwilling to support him:
Giuliani -- wrong or weak on guns, abortion, gay marriage, and immigration. He partly redeems himself by being straight-forward about his Republican heterodoxy on these points. There is probably no other candidate, however, about whom more Republicans are willing to say that they simply wouldn't vote for him. Not good.
Romney -- wrong or weak on guns, abortion, gay marriage, and immigration while governor -- then insulting the GOP base by claiming now to be purest of them all on these things. And as Jay Cost recently pointed out, his political inexperience is shows in the obviously reactive mode of his campaign, and should raise questions about his ability to take on the Clinton machine.
Huckabee -- we like Mike, as readers know, but he would face serious hurdles from those who simply don't believe that he would be a fiscal conservative. Just as religious conservatives talk openly about staying home if Giuliani is the nominee, so are there rumblings about that from the big business wing of the party. We probably get an e-mail a day raking Huckabee over the coals, portraying him as the fiscal devil incarnate.
Thompson -- off taking a nap somewhere, unless he's working on a secret plan that he's not let anyone else in on.
Which leaves McCain. His record and stance is clear on the hot-button issues of gun-control, abortion, and gay marriage where Romney and Giuliani simply aren't trusted because of their records.
He is a credible fiscal conservative, one who won't take a "no tax raises" pledge (which no cautious conservative should, in our opinion,) and who has actually worked to cut spending -- a forgotten piece of the anti-tax-and-spend philosophy of traditional Republican thought.
On national defense, while he might make Taftish Republicans like MH a little leery, he has the requisite bellicosity to please most of the GOP base -- and his humane stance against torture or anything that smacks of it is reassuring. He certainly has the most experience with matters of foreign policy and defense of any GOP candidate.
One also harbors the notion that as a veteran and a POW, McCain would -- when it comes right down to it -- probably be less likely to go foolishly to war than would those without such experiences.
And on immigration, he has come clean in what is starting to become a believable fashion: he has acknowledged that the reason the American people soundly rejected comprehensive immigration reform was because they didn't trust the federal government to keep its word on border control. Implicit in McCain's words is an admission that he and the President and the federal government got exactly what they deserved when the American people shot them down. He is now a professed believer in border control first.
Polling has usually shown him as the strongest candidate the GOP could have in a general election. We suspect he could unite the GOP base better than anyone could (which admittedly isn't saying a lot right now,) and he would have significant cross-over appeal from independents. On the latter, McCain has "been there, done that."
In short, when compared to the huge shortcomings that significant portions of the base perceive in the other candidates, McCain's problems begin to pale by comparison. He still compares unfavorably to the "dream candidate" of the GOP base -- but since that guy didn't show up in this election cycle, that is becoming an increasingly irrelevant comparison. And since it is clear that whoever is the nominee, someone is going to have to forgive something in that nominee -- why can't we forgive McCain for McCain-Feingold and comprehensive immigration reform?
And just as these thoughts were flitting through the MH neural networks, we learn that we weren't the first to think of this. Broder's piece is particularly interesting, and indeed convincing.
And now, as if to accentuate the point, McCain has quietly moved into 2nd place in the the most conservative and balanced polling indicator we have -- the RCP Average. All it would take is a Huckabee win in Iowa and a McCain win in New Hampshire (he's done it before) -- and this crazy race would take yet another turn, one that might leave McCain with the nomination.
And as much as it surprises and even pains us a little to say it -- that might be just what the GOP needs.