Politics & Policy

John McCain’s Sweet Spot

Will it last?

Ever since Huckabee won Iowa, everything has lined up perfectly in this process for John McCain. It must be the lucky nickel. There were only four days between Iowa and New Hampshire, not enough time for Romney to recover there and not enough time for conservative talk radio, which is really kicking in now against McCain, to have any real effect. One moment McCain was the war hero whose campaign had imploded and no one thought about, except to say nice things about him during the debates; the next moment he was back on top in New Hampshire. The timing was perfect.

Then, on to Michigan. McCain now is taking more fire from the Right, but McCain has a base in Michigan and independents and Democrats can vote for him (is that why he went out of his way to mention global warming tonight?). He’s going to be hard to stop there and his main rival in Michigan, Romney, was stomped on by everyone in the New Hampshire debates. Thanks, guys!

After that: South Carolina. Let’s assume that McCain wins Michigan. Who is going to stop him in South Carolina? I assume it’s not going to happen by inertia. He’s going to have momentum and he’s already pretty strong in South Carolina. Someone’s going to have to affirmatively try to deny him victory, and there are only two guys to do it: Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson.

Huckabee has spoken nary a discouraging word about McCain. In fact, he has teamed up with him. He worked in tandem with him during the New Hampshire debates, and practically gave his own victory speech after McCain won the primary. Is he going to pivot to hit McCain? So far in Michigan he’s still implicitly shooting at Romney for looking too corporate. Maybe he’s waiting until South Carolina. But there’s only four days between Michigan and South Carolina — not enough time (see Iowa-New Hampshire above). Huckabee may never go after McCain, because he criticized Romney earlier for attacking McCain, or because he doesn’t feel comfortable attacking a war hero, or he’s simply committed to staying positive (despite Rollins), or because he has it in the back of his mind that he can be McCain’s vice-presidential pick.

Then, there’s Fred. He took a gentle swipe at McCain on immigration Thursday night, but reserved most of his fire for Huck. Attacking Huck in South Carolina probably helps McCain because so far Huck has been McCain’s main competition there. Let’s say that Fred supplants Huck in the hearts of true conservatives. Unless he skyrockets, McCain will still be in his way. Will he then go after the Arizona senator? He may never do it, because McCain is his friend, or because he’s uncomfortable attacking a war hero, or because he knows that he’ll eventually endorse McCain, or because in the back of his mind he thinks he could be McCain’s VP pick.

If McCain wins Michigan and if he wins South Carolina — I know the “if’s” are piling up here — it’s on to Florida. That’s where Rudy awaits. You can see Rudy forcefully taking on McCain. But he hasn’t done it so far because he has an incentive to sit back and let everyone else fight over the early states. (It should also be noted that Rudy has said that if he weren’t running, he’d be supporting McCain.) Maybe Rudy is just waiting until the race makes it down to Florida. But by then it could be too late. Rudy will be taking on McCain after his momentum has had plenty of time to build, and when he may have established himself as the frontrunner that the party won’t want to have scuffed up too badly, especially by a candidate who will have even more problems with the Right.

The upshot: McCain is in a sweet spot. Will it last? Will something happen to knock him out of it — a loss in Michigan, a gaffe, a swoon among conservatives in South Carolina? There’s no way to know. But there’s nothing like being the candidate who is probably the frontrunner, but is not targeted by most of his opponents. Keep rubbing the lucky nickel, senator. You want to stay in this sweet spot as long as possible.


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