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McCain's rise is Democrat's opportunity

Whoever can best take advantage of the GOP senator's ascendance to GOP standard-bearer should secure the nomination.
/ Source: National Journal

Super Tuesday is a wrap, but it failed to tie up the primary season with a nice, neat bow. Instead, it feels like we are in a presidential-primary version of the movie "Groundhog Day"; each election is the same because every candidate can claim support, but no one can get a majority. Where do the Republican and Democratic nominating contests stand going into (for Democrats at least) another two to four weeks of heavy campaigning?

In the end, Rudy Giuliani's chaos theory — that the GOP electorate would fail to coalesce behind one candidate — was right. will eventually sew up the nomination without growing his support among the conservative base of the party. So, why is he still standing?

Obviously, has been a great help in siphoning conservative voters away from . But, more importantly, Romney never used his enormous financial advantage to wage an all-out assault against McCain on the airwaves. After going on the offensive in places like Iowa and New Hampshire and coming up short, the Romney campaign made the decision to lay off the hard stuff. Maybe his campaign decided he had lost credibility with conservatives, thereby neutralizing his attacks against McCain. Or perhaps Romney, in trying to channel Ronald Reagan, consciously decided against a slash-and-burn campaign that would have broken Reagan's coveted Eleventh Commandment. To be sure, this hasn't been a warm, fuzzy campaign, but we've all seen campaigns in which the rhetoric and advertising were 10 times more heated than what we've seen between McCain and Romney.

Conservative talk radio tried to carry the anti-McCain message. But since they couldn't (or wouldn't) rally around Romney as the alternative, it meant the conservative vote was diluted.

All this means that McCain goes into the next phase of the campaign in better shape than ever. His positive ratings are high and his negative ratings are low. The question now is whether Rush Limbaugh, et al., decide to turn down the attacks since the Arizona senator is the likely nominee.

Conservative leaders will also have to decide which is the bigger risk: sitting out the election and denying McCain a unified GOP base (and thus handing the Democratic nominee the win) or sitting it out and finding that McCain was able to win without their support.

How McCain is treated at this week's CPAC will give us some clues as to whether conservatives are open to supporting him.

With neither nor able to break out of their respective bases (Clinton's working-class, traditional Democratic voters; Obama's more affluent, independent-leaning voters and blacks), how can one of them actually break this race open? One word: McCain.

With the Republican nomination effectively wrapped up, Democrats must now turn their thoughts to which candidate matches up best against McCain. At one point, the question of electability was Clinton's strong suit. Now, the potential matchup with the Arizona "maverick" is likely to benefit Obama. Polls taken in the last week have shown that while neither Obama nor Clinton has been able to win a majority of the vote when matched up against McCain, Obama has been slightly ahead, while Clinton has been slightly behind.

The difference is independents. Obama runs very well with independents and Clinton does not. Will this factor be enough to convince Democratic voters in states like Virginia, Ohio and Texas who would otherwise support Clinton to move to Obama? For her part, Clinton has to be able to find a way (without using terms like "fairy tale") to convince voters that he is untested and unready for a battle against a lifelong fighter like McCain.

Earlier predictions that momentum would be enough to carry a candidate to the nomination turned out to be true for Republicans, but not for Democrats. Instead, Clinton and Obama need to exploit the opportunity that McCain's ascendance to GOP standard-bearer has given them.