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McCain the spoiler?

Currently, the "Mike Huckabee as Mitt Romney spoiler" storyline has taken center stage. But John McCain may be a bigger stumbling block for Romney.
/ Source: National Journal

Currently, the " as spoiler" storyline has taken center stage. But may be a bigger stumbling block for Romney.

Huckabee's rise in Iowa is obviously a significant threat to Romney, and he can't afford to allow national front-runner to get traction in New Hampshire -- hence Romney's new focus on aggressively challenging both of these opponents, at least in the free media.

But as the rhetoric gets heated between Giuliani and Romney, McCain's chances in New Hampshire could see a serious boost. Even if McCain doesn't win in New Hampshire, just coming close while being greatly outspent by Romney (and trailing by double digits for much of the summer and fall) would be a big blow to the former Massachusetts governor, potentially stalling any momentum he was hoping to get post-Iowa. Just as important, it would lessen the pressure on Giuliani to win one of the two early state primaries. After all, if the fight for the nomination remains up in the air through the first several contests, that makes it more likely to be determined on Feb. 5. That, of course, is exactly what the Giuliani camp hopes.

The top-line numbers in the CNN/WMUR poll [PDF] suggest that McCain hasn't gotten much traction in New Hampshire over the fall. After his plummet from 20 percent in June to 12 percent in July, McCain bounced back to 18 percent in September and remained at 18 percent in mid-November. Meanwhile, Romney, who has been spending heavily in the state, jumped 8 points to his July level of 34 percent. Giuliani suffered the biggest loss, dropping 8 points from 24 percent to 16 percent. Huckabee and barely registered, at 5 percent and 4 percent, respectively. And everyone's favorite libertarian, , took 8 percent.

But McCain has room to grow in the state. When voters were asked if they would "consider supporting" five of the GOP candidates, McCain was the only one to see any positive movement. Fifty-one percent said they would consider supporting him, up 6 points from July. Only Giuliani has more people saying that he's an option for them (54 percent). Just as important, the percentage of people who said they wouldn't support McCain "under any circumstances" dropped from 38 percent in July (the highest percentage among all those tested) to 29 percent in November. Giuliani went from 22 percent in July to 28 percent in November.

What also helps McCain is the fact that his other potential rivals -- Thompson and Paul (Huckabee wasn't tested on this question) -- have very little room to grow. Fifty percent of Republicans said they wouldn't support Thompson and a whopping 61 percent said the same about Paul.

McCain's biggest shortcoming: He has the smallest percentage of supporters who say they are "definitely decided," at just 5 percent. But, of the 57 percent of New Hampshire Republicans who said they have "no idea" who they are going to vote for, 64 percent said they're supportive of McCain.

Then there's the question of his appeal to the state's independent voters -- the key to his 2000 victory there. This year, McCain is tied for second in New Hampshire, even as independents make up a smaller portion of the potential GOP vote. The November CNN/WMUR poll showed that 65 percent of registered independents said they were likely to vote in the Democratic primary. In 2000, according to University of New Hampshire poll director Andy Smith, 62 percent of independents voted for a Republican candidate. And the summer before the primary 55 percent to 60 percent of independents told pollsters they'd vote GOP.

McCain's ability to remain statesmanlike (without looking too preachy) will be a sharp contrast with the bickering Northeasterners in the field. His latest ad, featuring McCain talking to the camera about his track record of taking on the establishment on everything from bloated budgets to Donald Rumsfeld, attempts to highlight that contrast.

As the issue of Iraq continues to drop in importance among GOP voters, the issue of immigration has been rising. This should be an obvious problem for McCain. But as Romney and Giuliani ratchet up the attacks over which one of them was more responsible for harboring illegal immigrants, McCain isn't the only one shouldering the negative fallout on the issue.

Even if McCain does well in New Hampshire, can he go anywhere from there? It's not clear that he has the money or the infrastructure to do much more. For example, polling for McCain in the Palmetto State looks grim. But will he have done enough damage to Romney that he helps ensure that the GOP nominating contest continues at least to Feb. 5? If so, the contest becomes more like a national primary, which is a huge boost to the leader in national polls -- Giuliani.