Image: John McCain
SAUL LOEB  /  AFP/Getty Images
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain at a Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room of the White House, April 8, 2008.
By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 4/9/2008 1:09:55 PM ET 2008-04-09T17:09:55

It is April of 2008, a time when the Republican brand is at an all-time low.

And yet somehow, some way, John McCain is hanging in there. He is proving to be perhaps the only electable Republican in the country, short of Colin Powell or the ineligible Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Conservatives may not be thrilled with what a McCain presidency means, but if social conservatives care about the makeup of the House and Senate, as well state legislatures and the courts, then they should rally around McCain. They know better than most the importance of controlling the legislative and judicial branches to achieve long-term influence.

With McCain representing the Republican brand, even if he were to lose the race he should be able to save a few Senate seats (say 2-3) and a handful of House seats (perhaps 10). The latter could keep the Democrats majority below 250, a reachable number for the GOP in 2010.

But this isn't meant to be just a simple lesson in how McCain can cover the spread. This is about looking at his path to victories.

The first thing McCain needs is for the Democrats to find a nominee. There's a lot of bad conventional wisdom percolating that this drawn out fight is good for McCain. It isn't... at least not yet.

There may be a point where it is good for McCain, say if the fight actually goes all the way to Denver, but short of that, he needs an opponent, badly.

Why? A few reasons, not the least of which is finding out where he stands with the voting public.

Currently polls show McCain either narrowly ahead or even with both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It is impressive considering how poorly the GOP, and specifically the president, are viewed by the public.

But it is a faux lead. If the de facto Democratic nominee is clear within the next 4-6 weeks, that person will see a poll bounce. And according to GOP pollster Steve Lombardo, it could be one heck of a bounce, like post-convention. He anticipates the Democratic candidate will move up 10 points once the primary race is over.

That will be a jolting set of numbers for the McCain camp to absorb. They ought to be prepping the media now, because if they wait for the inevitable overreaction of the pundit class, the bounce will take on more importance.

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The initial bounce will set the polling numbers – the floor and ceiling – for the Democrats, who clearly have the generic advantage this cycle. Those parameters will dictate the morale within the GOP base.

If McCain’s is hanging in, behind by 10 or so points, then it is clear he will have a shot. If the bounce pushes the Democratic nominee to as much as a 15 point lead, it may be very demoralizing to the GOP. The sooner McCain can absorb this inevitable negative poll news, the longer he has to recover.

Getting the bounce out of the way isn’t the only reason McCain needs the Democrats’ race to end as soon as possible. It is also because he will run two very different campaigns depending on whom he faces.

He will either be the steady hand in uncertain times vs. Obama, or he'll be the breath of fresh air and openness in a campaign against Clinton.

As someone said to NBC's David Gregory, McCain will take up the space left by the defeated Democrat.

From a message standpoint, those are big differences. It is not easy to advance both, now, at the same time. McCain is trying, but ultimately, being able to refine one line of attack is a must, and that can't happen without a clear opponent.

In addition to message, geographically the battleground will be different depending on who he’s running against.

If Clinton is the foe, McCain will be using a target map that looks very similar to the one George Bush pursued in '00 and '04. The emphasis will be on the Midwest and West, as he may be able to pick off a few blue states like Oregon or Wisconsin.

If Obama is the foe, McCain's geographic emphasis is likely to shift East to the Rust Belt, Michigan and Pennsylvania in particular, and even to the Northeast.

There are credible paths to victory for McCain regardless of his opponent. But the easier path – or the more comfortable one for McCain – appears to be a campaign against Clinton.

First, a Clinton victory in the primary would probably not take place until well into the summer, giving McCain some time to stay competitive on fundraising.

Second, a Clinton primary win would give McCain an opportunity to win over younger voters (whom he connected with in '00) and affluent, white male independents (who have been gravitating slowly to Obama for some time).

Third, McCain's campaign sweet spot over the years has been when he’s the "change" candidate. Despite the (R) next to his name, he can run against Hillary's last name and claim the change mantle. It will not be easy, but it will be easier than claiming that mantle against Obama.

So how can he beat Obama?

He will have to do well in the Rust Belt and dominate the economic issue in a way he's never done before. McCain could fix some of his problems connecting on the economy by his choice of a running mate, and there may not be a better "conventional" pick than Mitt Romney.

The former Massachusetts governor could help the ticket immediately in the two blue states of Michigan and New Hampshire. And he could potentially offset Obama's strength in the Rocky Mountain west with a surge of Mormons coming out in Nevada and Colorado in particular.

Then there is the help Romney could provide on McCain’s message, assuming the problem-solving, job-creation Romney is the running mate rather than the born-again social conservative Romney.

McCain can win, no matter his opponent. But there’s the rub. He needs an opponent.

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