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Clinton vs. McCain. Are You Serious?

By Richard Reeves

HEIDELBERG, Germany -- Giving the Holtzbrinck Lecture on "The American Presidency" at the University of Heidelberg, a school founded more than a century before Columbus came upon the New World, was a highlight of a month-long stay at the American Academy in Berlin. But the first question from the audience was the same as it would have been if I had been back home on the other side of the ocean he crossed in 1492.

"So, who do you think will be the nominees next year?"

"Well, if I had to bet, and I don't bet ..." Stalling for time. "... Hillary Clinton and John McCain."

I had to say something.

Naming the next Clinton was not difficult, though even at this distance it is not hard to tell that she has been damaged by the arrest of her biggest financial contributor and his apparent confessions that he is an uncommonly successful common crook. The senator from New York may have needed Norman Hsu's $850,000, but she did not need this kind of reminder that Clinton campaigns always seem to be only a day away from a fund-raising scandal.

But McCain? I read every day that he is finished, most recently in The Washington Times: "McCain Campaign Is 'Done For,' Insider Says." I'm no insider, but I think that if he can hang in there, he might just be the last man standing after Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney have had their lives and careers sliced and diced by opponents and the press.

McCain has already run that gauntlet a couple of times, and he is still here, bloody and bowed. He is no favorite of mine -- wrong temperament and too much temper for a president. It's personal. "Who the hell are you to talk to me like that?" he once shouted at my wife at a party when she asked him how he could cuddle up to President Bush after what Bush had done to him in 2000, during the primary campaign in South Carolina.

If you have forgotten what happened back then, after McCain had defeated Bush by 18 points in the New Hampshire primary, there is a good short account in Robert Draper's new book on the president, "Dead Certain." Draper summarizes Bush's recruitment of right-wing hit-men to attack McCain on of all things, his commitment to the welfare of Vietnam veterans. "He had the power to help the veterans," one said as Bush smiled encouragement, "but he came home and forgot us."

The draft-dodging president chose to ignore the fact that McCain came home by way of prison and torture in North Vietnam. For good measure, the Bushies also accused him of blocking legislation that might have saved the lives of thousands of women with breast cancer.

"That's not right ... not honorable," McCain growled at the time, but he forgave and forgot that viciousness, or at least he pretended that he did, at the height of Bush's popularity after the terrorist crimes of Sept. 11. The senator from Arizona, a front-runner then, sold himself as the chosen successor of the Republican president. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it turned out to be the beginning of McCain's problems this year as Bush's popularity went into free-fall.

One thing led to another as McCain's campaign staff began abandoning him -- temper probably had something to do with that -- and the money phones stopped ringing. Still, he stands, and he may stand taller as questions inevitably are raised about Romney and Giuliani. The former governor of Massachusetts will be dogged about his "moderate" record in a liberal state and about his Mormonism, a religion considered a cult by many immoderate Protestants, the real base of the post-Reagan Republican Party. The former mayor of New York has both a controversial record and his own temperament problems -- political junkies and camp followers consider Giuliani to be "crazier" than McCain -- to defend in the coming months.

At any rate, no matter how bad Republican chances look next year, the party in power these last years has to nominate someone. And no one can argue that John McCain, the heroic prisoner of war, isn't tough enough to survive the embarrassments of a lousy political campaign.

Copyright 2007 Universal Press Syndicate

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