Good for McCain that ideas matter

Published April 8, 2007

In recent weeks, we have been trying to make the case for how each of the major 2008 presidential contenders could win the White House. These aren't predictions or endorsements, mind you, just food for thought. Last up was Democrat Bill Richardson. This week, Republican John McCain.


Granted, this is a tough week for arguing John McCain will be our 44th president.

The much-anticipated first fundraising reports found the once presumptive frontrunner trailing well behind Republican challengers Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney in money, with $12.5-million raised.

On top of that, Mr. Straight Talk earned loads of publicity depicting him as a phony Pollyanna on Iraq. Donning a flak jacket and backed by dozens of troops and helicopter gunships, McCain strolled through a Baghdad marketplace and touted the improving conditions in Iraq.

Pundits are gushing about Mitt Romney's $23-million and Rudy Giuliani's consistent lead in national polls. Some are depicting the McCain campaign as floundering and practically drafting the Arizona senator's political obituary.

Baloney. McCain has work to do, but this authentic American hero is well positioned to win both the Republican nomination and the general election.

Polls show McCain leading or tied for the lead in the crucial early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where he already has formidable campaign organizations. And never underestimate the advantage for a candidate who has already run a grueling national campaign.

"If you administered truth serum to the other campaigns they would say in a heartbeat they would trade places with us," said senior McCain strategist John Weaver.

Does anybody really think the balloon isn't sure to burst for thrice-married front-runner Giuliani - whose son barely speaks to him, who supports taxpayer funding for abortions, who has dubious business relationships to explain, and who was seriously damaged goods in New York City until 9/11?

Or that the GOP standard-bearer for 2008 will be former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, who used to boast he'd do more for gay rights than Ted Kennedy and last week was caught in New Hampshire pandering about being a "lifelong" hunter turns out he'd hunted twice in 60 years?

"The more that people start examining where the candidates are and have been on the issues, McCain is going to stand out as the conservative. Relative to Romney or Giuliani, he is far and away the more consistent conservative," said Hayden Dempsey, a former top Jeb Bush aide helping McCain in Florida.

As much as many conservatives distrust McCain for McCain-Feingold campaign finance restrictions, for supporting guest worker options for immigrants, or merely for winning the adoration of the media in 2000, McCain is more unimpeachably conservative than any of the top-tier Republicans.

At 70, McCain has been staunchly antiabortion for more than two decades, has been the most consistent opponent of gun control, and has aggressively pushed for government spending cuts. He voted against the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill and was ranked by voteview.com as the third most conservative senator in the 109th congress. No other Republican has his foreign policy experience.

As a longtime advocate for sending more troops to Iraq, McCain knows his political fortunes depend heavily on what happens there. "I would much rather lose a campaign than lose a war," McCain said.

The former prisoner of war has been a consistent critic of how the war has been managed, and he still enjoys strong credibility on national security.

"The war on terror is not going away," said Kathleen Shanahan, former Dick Cheney and Jeb Bush adviser who is aiding McCain in Florida. "We can debate why we're there and all the missteps along the way but at the end of the day this war on terror is real, and McCain is the only one on the Republican side knowledgeable and experienced enough on national security to lead us."

McCain's strong ground organizations, skill as a retail politician, and experience as national candidate will pay off in the coming months. The primary strategy is simple: Strong showings in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina will provide the momentum to seal the nomination. Florida's potential Jan. 29 primary looks good for McCain.

"Most of the people who helped Charlie Crist get elected are with McCain," said Republican activist Phil Handy, who suspects Gov. Crist will wind up endorsing McCain.

Then comes the general election. Even with the increasingly unpopular war, McCain maintains strong appeal among independents. Polls repeatedly show him beating Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

Yes, McCain has work to do to recapture his front-runner status. But you'd be foolish to doubt his ability to do it.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.