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How John McCain will save the GOP

Regardless of whether John McCain wins the GOP's nomination in 2008, his presence in the race is enough to move the party back to the center. The National Journal's Chuck Todd explains
/ Source: National Journal

Republicans like Karl Rove are trying to justify their party's losses this year by borrowing a page from Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's (D) book of voting "if onlys." Remember Kerry harping on that if just half of the fans at an Ohio State football game had switched their votes, he'd be president?

Here are some of the GOP's "if only" talking points after last Tuesday's results. If only...

  • 77,000 people had switched their House votes, the GOP would still have its majority.
  • 50,000 folks in three states (
  • Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were fired before the election.

Bottom line: Those who want to lead the GOP in the future had better view 2006 as a defeat and not just an unlucky break.

Plenty of wise GOP strategists are coming to grips with what really happened last week -- that the Republicans got killed by the middle. Self-described independents and moderates tipped just about every close election to the Democrats.

The result seems to run counter to the recent Republican argument that close elections are won by the base.

But as sullen as some are in the GOP about the party's problems with the center heading into '08, I've got good news: John McCain is here to save the day.

Now, before clicking away under the assumption that this is another typical MSM lovefest for the maverick Arizona senator, hear me out.

Conservative ire for McCain is real. The question, of course, is: Are there enough of these conservatives to stop McCain from getting the GOP nomination? Apparently, it's a question both Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani are determined to find out.

I've never fully understood the blind rage conservatives have for McCain. On some issues, like pork-barrel spending and earmark reform, he's a standard issue, small-government conservative. The guy is pro-life (though his libertarian tendencies on social issues seem to concern some evangelical types), and he's one of the most hawkish legislators in the upper chamber. There's nothing in his record that screams "liberal" other than his comfort level in dealing with the media. I've always wondered if McCain's acceptance by the media has actually hurt him with conservatives who don't trust media outlets like, say, the New York Times.

When pressed about why they hate McCain, a movement conservative usually ends up concluding that it isn't any one issue, although some do bring up the Gang of 14's scrutiny of judicial nominations, immigration and the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation. It's more of a gut check for these folks. They just don't trust him to stay true to his Republican roots. They believe that once he's in office, he'll act more like former President George H.W. Bush than Ronald Reagan.

For many of these folks, there isn't going to be anything McCain can say or do in the next year that will sway them to his side during the primaries. Many of them grudgingly admit they'll back McCain in a general election (but there have been whispers of a third-party movement by the hard-core anti-McCainiacs).

And if McCain gets the nomination, many of the voting groups the Republicans lost in '06 (independents, moderates, Midwest populists and even libertarian Westerners) will feel some potential kinship with the GOP's standard-bearer, which might make him the natural cure for what ails the party. The one big unknown for McCain in the next two years is just how much of a price he pays for his Iraq position. Does that trump all of his other attributes which make him so potentially appealing to the revitalized middle?

But it isn't McCain's potential kinship with all the newly disaffected one-time Republican-voting independents that makes me believe he's the GOP's savior. It's the fact that two of his chief rivals for the nomination -- Romney and Giuliani -- are also center-right Republicans who appeal to independents. If the blind-rage against McCain is as strong among conservatives around the country as it is here inside the Beltway, then either Romney or Giuliani is going to be the GOP's '08 nominee, moving the party closer to the center than it is today.

Both Romney and Giuliani sense a chance at beating McCain on the right. The mainstream media mistakenly views Giuliani as another centrist, going after the same portion of the GOP electorate that McCain attracts. That's just not correct. Giuliani's strength in Republican polls is with conservatives, or more specifically, with those Republicans who have stayed the most supportive of Bush. The Diageo/ [PDF] showed evidence of this phenomenon last spring.

What's most fascinating about Giuliani's popularity with the GOP base is that his liberal stances on social issues like gay rights, abortion and guns, run diametric to the conservative rank and file. The media seem to believe these folks don't know Giuliani's stances, but that once they do they'll reject him. I'm hesitant to assume voters don't know these things about him; I think they do but are so consumed with fear for national security that they are willing to give him a pass.

Giuliani wins this bloc over on rhetoric. He simply speaks to conservatives in a language that McCain doesn't. Maybe it's the "Zig Ziglar" training Giuliani's gotten, but whatever it is, the motivational aspect of Giuliani's speeches seem to touch conservatives in a way that McCain's "Straight Talk Express" doesn't. (Romney's pretty good at the upbeat speech as well, but sometimes he can sound a little too much like Tony Robbins.)

No one has had a better time of going from the second tier to the first tier of GOP presidential candidates in '06 than Romney. Despite his Massachusetts background and one-time pro-choice stance when he was a '94 Senate candidate against Democratic heavyweight Sen. Edward Kennedy, some conservatives have shown an openness to Romney that they refuse to give to McCain.

Giuliani's decision this week to open an exploratory committee complicates Romney's plans a bit. He was benefiting from being, basically, the only viable alternative to McCain. Now that anti-McCain conservatives have a choice, it's bad news for Romney and good news for McCain. The longer the '08 primary stays a multi-candidate race, the better for the Arizona Republican. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's likely entry as the mainstream conservative candidate also helps McCain.

While I'm no more convinced today than I was last month that McCain can or will survive the GOP primary in '08, his chances were certainly helped by the '06 results. If the rank-and-file Republicans decide strategically that they need to woo the West and the Midwest and need a non-Southern face as their nominee, McCain will get the call. But if movement conservatives can't be pragmatic enough to go the McCain route, the party may still be in good shape for '08 if the chief alternatives are one-time ideological centrists like Romney or Giuliani.

So in that respect, win or lose in the primary season, McCain could very well be the one who saves the Republican Party in 2008.

Chuck Todd is a contributing editor and editor in chief of The Hotline. His e-mail address is .