Friday, February 01, 2008

Why McCain over Romney?

Kimberly Strassel describes why the Republicans' seemingly Hobbesian choice of McCain or Romney really isn't that hard to make:

. . . For all his flaws, many top Republicans are concluding the Arizonan has the best shot of winning a Presidential election that many had figured was doomed. Their calculation goes like this:

In a race that will be fought on national security, Mr. McCain is one of the few public figures with the potential to convince Americans to stick with Iraq, and in turn neutralize the war. This would also boost congressional Republicans. On the broader question of security, he'd cut Hillary Clinton's "experience" down to size. He'd arguably run national security rings around the Illinois rookie, and that's before Barack Obama got a chance to make another foreign policy gaffe.

Mr. McCain has the potential to swing critical independents. This would matter against any Democrat, but in particular against Mr. Obama. New Hampshire Independents got to choose their primary last month, and the early betting was that they'd flock to the Democrats and Mr. Obama. In fact, they made up a greater share of the Republican primary vote than they did in 2000, drawn by Mr. McCain.

A related point: Mr. McCain's independent support is in part a function of his ability to manage the Bush question. As Mr. Romney has walked a tightrope, unsure whether to embrace or decry an unpopular president, Mr. McCain has simply pointed to his own record. Voters loyal to President Bush see in Mr. McCain a man who stood firm on the Iraq war. Voters who dislike Mr. Bush see a man who criticized the president on the conduct of that war. This is useful.

He also has the potential to stem the flood of Hispanics from the GOP. His new immigration strategy was on display in this week's debate: He'll talk about the importance of securing the border, and say no more. With this he hopes to mollify conservatives, and will leave it to others to remind Hispanics of his record. Florida was a useful test case, with Mr. McCain winning more than half the Hispanic vote. Another quarter went to Rudy Giuliani, who has since thrown in with Mr. McCain. Mr. Romney got 14%.

Mr. McCain has a better opportunity to make a Clinton competition about character and believability. He's no flip-flopper, and his duty-honor-loyalty persona would stand in stark contrast to both Clintons. He has a better opportunity to make an Obama race about core beliefs. Like or dislike Mr. McCain's views, Americans know what they are. Mr. Obama has been a cipher.

Most important, Mr. McCain retains the potential to make inroads with those who've had to hold their noses just to read this far. He does have a real problem with the GOP base. The key difference between Mr. McCain in 2000 and 2008 is that he knows it, and appears intent on making amends. Watch for him to be as pure as the New Hampshire snow on the two core issues of taxes and judges. His campaign has thrown its all into collecting establishment endorsements who will make his case with their state faithful. Supply-side icons such as Jack Kemp and Phil Gramm will try to soothe the feistier organizations in the GOP camp.

Yes, it's dangerous to nominate a candidate based primarily on electability (see Kerry, John; then again, who else could the Dems have credibly nominated in '04?), but the problems Romney has as a candidate (Mormon, flip-flopper, no foreign policy experience, businessman turned governor like Pres. Bush) could be deadly in the general election. From Hillary's dishonesty to Obama's callowness, McCain has great strengths that strike at the core weaknesses of the leading Democrats.

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