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Lucky Fella

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Friday, February 08, 2008

John McCain is one lucky guy. A funny thing happened to him on the way to the Republican nomination. He was forced to run as himself. He had no choice but to try to win without the support of the hard-core conservatives he initially set out to court. He was pushed back onto the Straight Talk Express, onto the coach section of the plane, into the endless town halls, where he had no choice but to be himself, say what he thinks, run on his record and leave it at that.

And imagine: It's worked.

With Mitt Romney's decision, announced Thursday, to "suspend" his presidential campaign ("suspending" means it's all over but for the fundraising -- in Romney's case, a largely doomed effort to repay himself for his personal loans to the campaign), McCain is all but assured the Republican presidential nomination. Indeed, easing and shortening McCain's path to the coronation, in the hopes it would allow him more time (and fewer criticisms) to take on Clinton/Obama, was the reason stated for the former Massachusetts governor's withdrawal, although cynics may wonder whether it also had something to do with his wife's desire to end the drain on the family checking account. Money, the usual reason that candidates have to pull out, was not an external limit on the future of the Romney campaign, but it may well have been an internal one.

Of course, Romney's suspension does not eliminate the friendlier Mike Huckabee as a thorn in McCain's side, but the truth is, he isn't a very big one, and in the weird ways of politics, his involvement may actually help McCain. Huckabee is almost as unpopular with the conservative talking heads who are writhing with discomfort at the prospect of McCain as their standard bearer, as is the Arizona senator and co-sponsor of McCain-Feingold (campaign finance) and McCain-Kennedy (immigration reform).

From the moment he won the Iowa caucuses, Rush et al were after the Arkansas governor for his record of raising taxes for education, pardoning his own versions of Willie Horton and allowing the children of illegal immigrants to attend public universities at in-state tuition rates. Huckabee was definitely on to something in his understanding of the economic anxiety on Main Street, as opposed to so many Republicans who kept telling themselves and each other that all was rosy with the economy. But his connection to small business and dinner table America didn't win him points with the conservative elite.

Even more important, no one who does this professionally gives the cash-strapped, Darwin-doubting former governor a real chance of winning the Republican nomination. Beating him every Tuesday is a little bit like a Democrat beating Jesse Jackson: It gives McCain the chance to keep looking like a winner. Better yet, it keeps him looking like a moderate defeating the conservative fringe at a time when his eye, rightly, is on the independents who will find that appealing, and who will control the contest in the fall -- rather than the ideologues in his own party, who have, in truth, already lost.

It's a little like what happened in 1988: The contest ultimately came down to Dukakis and Jackson, with the result being not only that Dukakis won, but that by the time he won, most of the country assumed he was really more conservative than he was because he was at least more conservative than Jackson. Until the Republicans got their hands on him.

And the Democrats will get their hands on McCain.

Make no mistake, McCain may have run and won, ultimately, as an independent Republican, as the least conservative of the conservatives, but that is not how he will be positioned by Democrats. Speeches at Liberty University? A hundred-year war? McCain may not have won the support of conservatives in the early days of his campaign, but that will not stop Democrats from reminding voters of how hard he tried to be George Bush's best friend and conservatives' first choice.

Nasty? Just get ready. Luck only protects you for so long.

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