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McCain should target California

The Golden State's 55 electoral votes would pose a virtually insurmountable challenge to Democrats in the general election.
Image: John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., couldn't offer Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a position as his running mate, but a position in a McCain administration might prove a boost toward winning California in the general election.Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: National Journal

Arnold Schwarzenegger, secretary of homeland security. Or, perhaps, ambassador to the United Nations. Hey, you heard it here first.

As he locks up the GOP nod, John McCain and his deputies are talking boldly this week about redrawing the electoral map into one where California lights up red on Nov. 4 for the first time in 20 years. The Golden State's 55 electoral votes falling into the GOP column would pose a virtually insurmountable challenge to Democrats, no matter who wins that party's nod. McCain may not have a choice: In a year that still looks very good for Democrats, capturing California may be his only path to victory.

"California can be won by a Republican," McCain campaign chair and former California secretary of state Bill Jones told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I did it twice. The governor [Schwarzenegger] has done it."

It's a long shot, to be sure. For him to put California into play, McCain will need to climb several steep mountains. He'll need to ramp up his fundraising pace and veer to the left on key social issues, a move that would irk that pesky conservative base he's now courting. The state party is woefully in the red (and not the "Republican" red), and the Democratic voter registration advantage has increased considerably over the past year. In the Feb. 5 primary, almost 4.7 million Californians voted Democratic, and only 2.8 million voted Republican.

But there is one way for McCain to make the Golden State a red state, or at least give it an honest shot. And he's just sitting there in Sacramento, waiting to be asked.

Sometime early this summer -- preferably during a slow news week, if those still exist this year -- McCain should travel to California and announce that the state's popular Republican governor would land a plum assignment in a McCain administration. His roots prohibit him from becoming McCain's running mate, of course, but there's nothing in the Constitution that would prevent an Austrian-born bodybuilder from rising to the top echelons of power in Washington. Aligning himself with the liberal Republican might not help McCain's effort to court his party's right wing -- which is why he should make the announcement well before he names his running mate, likely to be a popular governor who could bring the GOP ticket back into the conservative fold.

It worked like a charm for George W. Bush, who enjoyed a big bounce in the summer of 2000 after he announced that Colin Powell would become the first black secretary of state in his administration. The uniter-not-a-divider gave Powell a key speaking role at the GOP convention in Philadelphia, where Republicans made an aggressive play for black and Hispanic voters.

The move would make political sense. Schwarzenegger endorsed McCain a week before California's primary, helping the senator slow Mitt Romney's momentum and carry the state decisively. And they already share many top aides, including Adam Mendelsohn, a former Schwarzenegger communications director now advising McCain; and Steve Schmidt, who masterminded the governor's re-election campaign in 2006 and helped turn around McCain's presidential bid last year.

While McCain and Schwarzenegger are hardly ideological soul mates, they are both skilled at working with Democrats, and they're compatible on key issues like immigration reform (which would fall under the homeland security chief's purview), campaign finance reform and climate change.

The move also would lend something else to McCain that his campaign sorely needs: sizzle. While Republicans are watching with glee as Democrats struggle through their nominating contest, McCain's supporters know that the year is still shaping up to be extremely favorable for change. For a 71-year-old white man who has spent almost half his life in Washington, a muscular shot in the arm from Hollywood couldn't hurt.

Besides, who's the alternative? Joe Lieberman?