Image: McCain
Ben Sklar  /  Getty Images
Sen. John McCain in Round Rock, Texas.
By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 3/3/2008 3:31:13 PM ET 2008-03-03T20:31:13

There are at least two people hoping Sen. Hillary Clinton does well on Junior Super Tuesday: Clinton, of course, and Sen. John McCain.

The last thing McCain needs right now is to face a de facto Democratic nominee by the name of Sen. Barack Obama.

McCain's general election campaign is still in its infancy. It would not be a stretch to describe the campaign staff structure as skeletal. From the press shop to the fundraising team, the operation is thin, and understandably so. Obama’s campaign may be a movement, but McCain is the one who rode momentum to a nomination.

McCain's comeback remains truly remarkable, and is still under-appreciated. About 18 different things had to happen simultaneously for McCain to end up the nominee. And miraculously, they all did: Mike Huckabee rising in Iowa; Rudy Giuliani not contesting New Hampshire and South Carolina; Fred Thompson showing less interest than his wife did in running; Florida Gov. Charlie Crist spending money to get soft Republicans out to vote on a property tax initiative, and so on.

If McCain ends up as the 44th president, multiple books will be written about his amazing primary comeback. Should he fail to win the presidency, his remarkable comeback will simply be an interesting footnote in American politics.

For now, McCain's has an incredible challenge in front of him – he has to build a national campaign. And the last thing he needs is a presumptive Democratic opponent on March 5.

But if Obama comes roaring out of Tuesday’s contests as the de facto nominee, it’s going to be a tough few months for the GOP.

The good news is that the conventions will provide an opportunity for McCain to re-set the campaign. But between now and the conventions, Obama could do some serious damage. He could erode some GOP advantages in red states, which the RNC had no thoughts of defending just a few short months ago.

And if a McCain vs. Obama race becomes semi-official on March 5, McCain could be facing a financial onslaught that will make Clinton vs. Dole in the summer of 1996 seem like a fair fight.

In Obama, McCain will be facing someone who has run fully staffed statewide organizations in nearly 40 states. More importantly, if Obama's raising some $50 million a month as a candidate for the Democratic nomination, imagine how much he might raise as the de facto nominee.

McCain desperately needs a Clinton resurgence because he needs more time. If Obama comes out of the March 4 contests as the presumptive Democratic nominee, McCain and the Republican Party have a very serious problem.

Imagine this scenario: Obama starts raising $75 million a month between now and the late August conventions.

He starts using that money to play catch up in two important swing states – Michigan and Florida – where he has spent very little time.

He then attempts to expand the Electoral College playing field to places like:

  • North Carolina (a large African-American turnout coupled with a university "Research Triangle" that could get Obama to 51 percent);
  • Montana (the war is very unpopular there);
  • Colorado (the state’s been on the verge of turning blue for some time);
  • Virginia (an historic black turnout could give him the state);
  • Nevada (probably out of reach, but it’s a cheap state);
  • And maybe even a few others – West Virginia, Tennessee and Louisiana?

Before the August/September conventions, it is likely Obama will have advertised in some 40-45 states, either in the primary or in the post-primary/pre-convention period, potentially building poll leads in some red states. These kinds of leads could scare the living you-know-what out of the GOP. At this time, the GOP must decide in which states to try to counter Obama, and in which states to call his bluff.

Video: Explainer These decisions won’t be based solely on the presidential campaign. They will also be based on which states have vulnerable senate seats that the GOP fears losing if Obama over performs (think North Carolina).

Because of resources, McCain and the RNC are going to have to figure out a couple of paths to the magic number of 270 electoral votes. They must focus on those states and ignore the rest.

Or, instead of playing defense, perhaps McCain and the GOP can try to play in some light blue states, like New Jersey, New Hampshire and Michigan. McCain and the GOP also ought to focus heavily in the industrial Midwest and the rust belt. Obama may very well over perform out West and do well in the South because of an enormous black turnout. But he may end up struggling in states where he has to win over white working class Democrats (the so-called Reagan Democrats). Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania jump out as three states McCain should live in over the next few months.

McCain would love nothing more than buy some time to raise money and prepare for the fall. Clinton victories in both Ohio and Texas will give him just that.

Many political junkies dream of a truly 50-state campaign. While I do not believe it will reach those heights, I would not be surprised if 30-35 states see some level of serious campaigning, if the final two candidates are Obama and McCain.

Obama has too much money and too much built-in organization not to at least experiment with expanding the playing field – even if it all comes down to five states by October.

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