John McCain’s victory in New Hampshire is a lesson in the power of perseverance. Written off for much of last year, he now seems, to many observers, the most likely candidate to win the Republican nomination. It is good to see his strengths rewarded. These strengths include the foresight and (again) perseverance he has shown on the Iraq war. Voters who considered it their most important issue went heavily for him.
He is one step closer to a McCain-Huckabee-Giuliani race in which he could find himself the most acceptable choice to conservatives. But he is not there yet. He will be tempted to go after Giuliani’s voters. The mayor took some national-security voters and moderates from McCain when the senator faltered, and he might get them back now. But as McCain starts competing in states more conservative than New Hampshire, he should also ease conservatives’ lingering doubts.
We think he can address some of their concerns without violating any of his beliefs. He continues to support a “comprehensive immigration reform” that includes a guest-worker program and legalizes most illegal immigrants. But he says that enforcement should come first. He should agree to enact an enforcement bill first, and then to try for separate legislation on his other initiatives after enforcement has had time to work. He announced his support for federal funding of embryo-destructive stem-cell research when it looked like alternative types of research were not as promising. Now they are, and he should acknowledge that the case for that funding is weaker. It would also be reassuring if he pointed to respected legal conservatives who would be involved in picking judges for him.
Our candidate, Mitt Romney, has been damaged by his second-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. He has yet to truly connect with voters, many of whom still see him as inauthentic. But his message in New Hampshire — as the conservative turn-around artist who wants to fix Washington — suited him, even if he came up short. He will need to win the argument about the economy in Michigan, which will require talking about it more, and with more emphasis on middle-class families. Based on his record, views, knowledge, credentials, and interests, Romney should be winning the economic debate. Yet McCain trounced him in New Hampshire among the voters who care most about the economy.
When we endorsed Romney, we called the race “fluid and unpredictable.” It still is. It is possible, if only just barely in some cases, to see Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, or Romney winning the nomination. We hope there are more surprises to come, and that they serve as a prelude to the biggest one of all this November.