by Dick Meyer
The Republican knock on John McCain is that he is a Republican beloved only by Democrats and reporters. The Democratic knock on McCain is that he is the Republican they would least like to face in the fall. Those aren’t hard knocks for McCain to take right now.
Republican primary voters seem to be finding ways to vote for him. As they come to believe he is the candidate Democrats fear most, they'll probably find it even easier to vote for him in the coming primaries. And John McCain will be the nominee of the party he invited himself to so rudely.
The perennial McCain-haters in the party’s pseudo-establishment and right wings might cry in their milk if McCain is the nominee. But they’ll be joined by Democrats of all wings.
A McCain nomination would provide many amusing ironies. The one that would be most vexing for the disorganized assemblage known as the Democratic Party is this: the 2008 Republican primaries have been uniquely un-Republican - lacking an early front-runner, unpredictable and divisive - yet they produced the party’s strongest possible general election candidate. The irony for Republicans is that the mischievous, anti-authoritarian party gadfly they thought they had offed in the summer of ’07 might save their elephant hide in the fall of ’08.
Intra-party popularity can be overrated. Many Democrats were downright embarrassed by Jimmy Carter in 1976. Many Republicans - especially those endangered creatures once called “moderate Republicans” - were mortified by Ronald Reagan in 1980. And Democrats were freshly disenchanted with Gennifer Flowers’ lover boy in 1992. You get the idea.
Democrats would prefer not to run against McCain because of his well-known appeal to independents. You wouldn’t know it from listening to cable news, but roughly a third of the American electorate is independent (32 percent in the latest CBS poll).
America isn’t red and blue. And these independent voters, oddly enough, are the ones who tend to be open-minded. Attracting them in a general election is a good thing if you’re interested in victory. (Traditionally, Republicans are rather more interested in victory than Democrats).
In New Hampshire, for example, a jumbo 44 percent of the voters in the Democratic primary called themselves independents. In the Republican primary, 37 percent were independents and 40 percent of that crowd went for John McCain. Four national surveys this month have polled to see how John McCain and Hillary Clinton would run against each other. McCain won in three of the four polls. In polls pitting her against Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani (three polls each), Clinton won every time. (McCain batted only .500 in the four match-ups with Barack Obama, who also appeals to independents.)
Horserace polls so far ahead of the election mean very little but they do illuminate why Democrats aren’t as happy as they might otherwise be. After all, Democrats, the polls say, like their candidates very much. Their top two candidates are well-funded. They have had a consistent front-runner and she dramatically fought off a challenger in New Hampshire and appears strong going in to Super Tuesday. The economic news keeps getting worse, which is ordinarily disastrous for the incumbent party. And the war in Iraq, which McCain has consistently and adamantly backed, keeps going and Americans keep dying there.
Democrats should be happy but they aren’t. Democrats aren’t happy because of John McCain. Republicans aren’t happy because of John McCain. I expect Republicans will change their minds long before the Democrats.