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On the day of the Michigan primary, a weak retail-sales report helped shove the Dow down by 277 points. Together with President Bush’s low approval ratings and the continuing unpopularity of the Iraq war, this hint of recession suggests an icy November for the GOP. Can any Republican beat the odds — or at least block a massive, party-busting defeat?

Kos and other Democratic activists don’t think that Mitt Romney is the one. They urged Michigan Democrats to cross over for him on the grounds that he is the least electable Republican. The effort had little effect, since John McCain led among Democratic crossover voters. But Romney won the primary anyway.

According to recent trial-heat surveys, Romney would lose to either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama by the widest margins of any major Republican candidate. Michael Medved says that Romney’s problem is phoniness, together with “an all-too-visible mean and nasty streak in going after his rivals.” If a recession does hit, Democrats could turn his business background against him. To squash Romney’s 1994 challenge to his Senate seat, Ted Kennedy ran ads featuring factory workers who blamed him for layoffs. The charge was unfair, but Democrats would surely use it again.

So would a Romney nomination give Democrats their wish? Romney supporters might compare the Kos effort to a 1966 maneuver by California governor Pat Brown. His campaign spread negative information about liberal Republican candidate George Christopher, in hopes that he would lose to his conservative primary foe. And Brown got the result he sought: the GOP nod went to Ronald Reagan. You know the rest of the story.

Team Romney might also stress the unreliability of polls in the current season. But for those who do put faith in polls, then McCain is an answer to their prayers. According to a recent New York Times poll, 41 percent of Republican voters see McCain as their party’s most electable candidate. In trial-heat surveys, McCain generally edges out Clinton and Obama, while the other Republicans tend to run behind.

We should be skeptical of hypothetical match-ups eleven months before the election. Still, McCain would have real strengths. His military experience gives him an authority on national security that neither Democrat could equal. Obama has no qualifications in this area, and he was right to question Clinton’s claim that her White House years prepared her for the real war room. Just as Obama suggested, much of her “experience” consisted of having tea.

Corruption was a key issue in the GOP’s loss of Congress two years ago. In a McCain-Clinton contest, the Democrats would throw away much of this advantage. McCain has a reputation for integrity, whereas the Clinton name recalls less admirable traits.

Age is a potential problem for McCain. He would be 72 at inauguration, the oldest man ever to start a presidency. He looks it. A contest against Obama would highlight the latter’s youth and vigor, since McCain is old enough to be his father. Against Clinton, age 60, the age issue would matter less.

McCain would have other troubles that the polls are missing. He has alienated many grassroots conservatives, who would not pound the streets for him as they did for Bush in 2004. And after a long campaign, what now seems like “independence” and “feistiness” might come across as arrogance and self-righteousness.

The same is true for Rudy Giuliani, who has already suffered damage in the polls. Although a later report by the New York Times found no “accounting legerdemain,” stories about a “shag fund” undercut his reputation. He has also had to answer questions about his former police commissioner, Bernie Kerik, now under indictment. The Kerik issue is political herpes: though not fatal in itself, it keeps erupting at inconvenient moments.

Then there’s Mike Huckabee. As Stuart Rothenberg has noted, a Huckabee-Obama match could blow the GOP’s advantage on national security. “Sure, Huckabee served as governor of Arkansas for more than two full terms, but that doesn’t give him the credentials to raise questions about Obama’s ability to lead the war against terror or protect American national security.”

Despite Huckabee’s positive record on race relations, Democrats would paint him as the second coming of Orval Faubus. Joe Biden faced charges of racism when he praised Obama as “articulate.” Just imagine what would happen if this white former governor of Arkansas actually tried to criticize him.

A Huckabee-Clinton race would be harder to call. The only sure bet is that Little Rock would become the world center of opposition research.

John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.



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