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John McCain Had a Good Election Day

By Peter Brown

The big winner Election Day wasn't even on the ballot. As screwy as it might seem, the Democratic takeover makes it much more likely Republican John McCain will be the next president of the United States.

That popping noise you might have heard early Wednesday morning wasn't just Democratic champagne corks; it was the starter's pistol kicking off the 2008 White House campaign.

For McCain, the perfect political storm - Iraq, corruption and the Foley scandal -- that handed Congress to the Democrats was far from an ill wind.

The results mean the Arizona senator's maverick ways that irk some of his own party's most conservative members will become a political asset if he wins the Republican presidential nomination. It is his past ability to appeal across party lines which makes him the candidate whom Democrats fear, and have not so privately hoped would be unable to win the GOP nomination.

They acknowledge that as the Republican presidential nominee McCain would be competitive in many states - Michigan, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon and perhaps even California, Pennsylvania and Illinois - that Democrats count as their base. And that's not to mention the ultimate battlegrounds, Ohio and Florida.

The election returns provide incentive for Republicans to quickly put aside their intramural differences and unite for 2008, and seem to help McCain's standing as the front-runner for the GOP nomination. It likely will mean money and endorsements will begin to move more quickly to him than would be the case had the 2006 election continued the status quo.

The election has removed George Allen as McCain's rival for the 2008 nomination. When the year began, Virginia Sen. Allen was the one around who party conservatives were expected to rally.

Mitt Romney is likely to inherit that mantle, but the former governor of Massachusetts, a Mormon, has a formidable task winning the nomination of a Republican Party firmly anchored in the evangelical Sun Belt.

Of course there is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who runs as well as McCain in trial heats against Democrats. But the smart money says that when GOP primary voters focus on his support for abortion rights, gay rights, gun control and a messy personal life, his stock will fall sharply.

There is nothing like defeat to make political partisans put aside their differences and focus on what they have in common. GOP conservatives who had the luxury of trying to make sure their nominee was pure enough may be much less picky now.

Simply put, the prospect of Hillary Clinton, John Kerry or Barack Obama in the White House come 2008, with the Congress already in Democratic hands, is likely to be a motivating factor for Republicans.

The Republicans are a hierarchical party. For the last half century, their nominee has been the pre-primary front-runner, usually the vice president or a big state governor.

But Vice President Dick Cheney isn't running; neither is the president's brother Jeb, the governor of Florida. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is ineligible because he is not a native-born citizen. All this left the party without a clear 2008 front-runner.

But the congressional and gubernatorial losses will force the party to focus immediately on 2008, and electability will become a much more immediate concern. That will push McCain to the fore.

He has a strong network around the country, and despite the residual bad feelings from the 2000 GOP primary fight between McCain and George W. Bush, many of the president's men have been signaling their support for the Arizonan in 2008.

During the past congressional campaign McCain was the politician most in demand by GOP candidates. It was no accident that on the day before the election, Charlie Crist, the new governor of Florida, passed up the opportunity to campaign with the president in order to appear with McCain.

Of course, nothing is certain, and McCain's age and health - he would be 72 when inaugurated - will remain unknown factors. Yet, for at least one Republican, 2006 was a very good year.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at peter.brown@quinnipiac.edu

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