By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 5/4/2006 10:00:23 PM ET 2006-05-05T02:00:23

Make no mistake: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is doing whatever he can to help Republicans this fall. After all, he has endorsed 50 GOP candidates from 28 different states, doled out $16,800 from his leadership PAC to some of them, and appeared at 14 fund-raisers and candidate events since April.

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But if Republicans suffer losses in November, as political analysts are predicting, McCain might not lose as much sleep as some his GOP colleagues will. The reason, experts say, is that a bad 2006 for the GOP could actually boost McCain’s presidential chances in 2008, because Republican voters might be more inclined to support someone who’s seen as reformer and who isn’t directly tied to the Bush White House.

Journalists and political junkies have been focusing their attention on the upcoming midterm elections, which take place exactly six months from Sunday. Or they’ve already begun concentrating on the 2008 presidential race. But few have looked for links between the two: that the midterms might have some impact on which candidates have a leg up — or a leg down — in 2008.

McCain is the most obvious example. His support of campaign-finance reform, his opposition to congressional earmarks and his occasional dust-ups with the Bush White House all appeal to independents and even some Democrats. But conservatives and GOP stalwarts don’t always trust him for those same reasons. (However, some Republicans have begun to warm up to him, while Democrats’ support has cooled off, as McCain reaches out to conservatives and Bush loyalists while eyeing a presidential bid.)

Yet, if Republicans end up losing in November — analysts predict that Democrats will pick up seats in the House and Senate, although probably not enough to take control of either chamber — then McCain might be the medicine they’re forced to swallow to hold onto the White House.

“If it’s a bad day for the Republicans, what is the antidote to that?” asks nonpartisan political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. “It is two words: John McCain.”

As Rothenberg recently explained in his Roll Call column, “The more gloom and doom surrounding his party, the better McCain looks. The more the GOP needs to counterpunch with its own message of change, reform and leadership, the more attractive McCain appears to Republicans, independents and Democrats.”

2006 losses could hurt other GOP candidates
While GOP losses in 2006 could help McCain — or someone else like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or a Republican governor — they could hurt other possible Republican candidates, such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. “It is difficult to launch a presidential campaign on the heels of losing Senate seats,” says Erik Smith, a Democratic strategist. “Whether it’s fair or not, you own that.”

Smith should know: He was a top aide to former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., whose 2004 presidential campaign failed to take off after Democrats suffered losses in the 2002 midterms.

Another possible GOP presidential candidate, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, might experience a similar fate if Republicans lose a significant number of gubernatorial contests this year, since Romney heads the Republican Governors Association. Analysts, in fact, predict that Democrats could pick up as many as six governorships in November.

Winning could help some Republicans
Conversely, Frist and Romney could see their presidential fortunes improve if Republicans do better than expected in the midterms. That also might help someone like Sen. George Allen, R-Va., whom many conservatives and GOP operatives seem to prefer over McCain. Rothenberg says if Republicans beat expectations, and a strong turnout by the GOP base was the reason, “then I think that would help George Allen.”

Indeed, David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, points out that a strong election night for Republicans would be an affirmation of Bush and his policies, and would benefit the presidential candidates most closely associated with the White House. It would also make Republicans feel bulletproof heading into 2008. On the other hand, a disappointing night for Republicans could hurt Allen in particular, since he’s viewed as the candidate who most resembles Bush.

Congressional control could hurt Democrats
The impact the midterms could have on the Democratic field isn’t as clear, however. Chuck Todd, editor-in-chief of The Hotline, a political tip sheet, says that a worse-than-expected election night for Democrats could possibly help someone like Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., (because Democratic voters will think that the Clintons are the only ones in the party who know how to win) or former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (because Democrats will be looking for the most “electable” candidate — that is, someone who hails from a Southern or red state).

But Todd says that one thing is clear: Almost every Democrat in the presidential field, including Clinton, could be hurt if Democrats take back control of Congress. “Hillary is hurt a lot by Speaker Pelosi,” he says, referring to current House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Todd explains that a Democratic-controlled House — especially one subpoenaing the Bush administration — could rally the GOP base, boost Bush’s standing and alter the political environment.

“The best thing for Bush would be a Democratic Congress,” Todd adds. “He would get a bump.”

Yet judging the presidential field based on the midterm results isn’t always accurate. After 2002, when Republicans won seats on the issue of national security (especially in defeating Democratic senators like Georgia’s Max Cleland and Missouri’s Jean Carnahan), Democratic voters eventually selected John Kerry, a Vietnam War hero, to be their presidential nominee.

The thought was he could give their party the edge on national security. But that, of course, didn’t quite work out.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

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