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McCain Still Has a Slim Chance

By Blake D. Dvorak

John McCain finished his "No Surrender" tour this week with some good polling news. Since Labor Day and an especially strong showing in the Sept. 5 debate, McCain has seen his RCP National Average jump an impressive five points. Although his numbers in key primary states, most importantly New Hampshire, remain low, finishing September stronger than when he began is perhaps the best McCain could have done.

But, as it always seems with McCain, the bad has accompanied the good. Earlier this week, McCain lost his Michigan chairman and now there are rumors that his third quarter fundraising haul will once more disappoint. An anonymous McCain confidant told the Washington Times that the campaign has raised just $3.7 million when the hoped-for amount was $4.5 million. The source was blunt: "[He's] done for."

Probably.

As an internal memo explained at the start of the "No Surrender" tour, the whole point of hitting the key primary states was to take "ownership" of the administration's surge policy in Iraq. Indeed, McCain kicked off the tour in Iowa mere hours after listening to Gen. David Petraeus testify on Capitol Hill. Running essentially a public-relations tour on behalf of a president who once destroyed McCain's presidential hopes is just one of the ironies of his present circumstance. Another irony is that it just might work - the surge that is.

The thing about McCain's "ownership" of the surge is that even if public opinion grows more favorable on the war, it won't necessarily benefit John McCain. In fact, even if by some miracle Petraeus is able to declare victory in the next six months, it won't necessarily benefit John McCain. The simple truth is that none of the other Republican candidates, with the obvious exception of Ron Paul, will abandon the surge now. If they ever do, it will come after the primaries - in other words, after the point McCain needs his "ownership" of the surge to pay off most.

This isn't anything McCain doesn't already know. The "No Surrender" tour, like the surge itself, was a last-ditch effort to save something many have already deemed unsalvageable. The last bitter irony for McCain is that there could come a day when Iraq is safe and secure and he is just a retired senator.

But there is more at work in the Republican race than Iraq. Things like electability, ideology and experience have created an unusual situation that finds the most socially liberal candidate atop the polls. The high level of undecided Republican voters further indicates that, unlike the Democratic field, there is no clear frontrunner. As the Democrats themselves discovered in 2004, when the polls showed a similar openness in the field, a candidate who has been declared an also-ran in September could rise unexpectedly in January.

Despite being the apparent frontrunner since spring, Rudy Giuliani's continued popularity remains a most astonishing thing. It's not unfair to say that save for one day in September 2001, Giuliani would not be where he is now, and might not even be in the race. So Giuliani deserves enormous credit for running a smooth campaign and reaching out to conservative voters while refusing to flip-flop (on some issues). Giuliani's discipline has allowed him to bring attention to his mayoral achievements pre 9/11 - by any account a success story of conservative governance - without letting his opponents shift the focus to his social liberalism.

But that social liberalism remains, and come early next year Giuliani will either have made history or Republicans will be smacking their heads asking why they ever thought he could win the GOP nomination.

Now take Fred Thompson, a two-term senator whose only great achievements are a reassuring baritone voice and an ability to work a camera like no one else running. Add in what is an undeniable grounding in conservative ideology and that just might be enough. Except that it has never been enough. Since 1964 and the nomination of Barry Goldwater, no Republican nominee has had as weak a record as Thompson. Again, come January, Republicans will either be in complete awe of Thompson's political acumen or they'll be smacking their heads.

Finally, there's Mitt Romney, an accomplished administrator and a great politician who's come from obscurity to be the favorite in Iowa. Aside from the Mormon factor, Romney won't be breaking any historical precedent should he win the nomination. A lot of conservatives don't trust him, and for good reason, but conservatives have had worse options. But with Romney there's the issue of electability. According to RCP averages, all of the top three Democratic candidates trounce Romney in head-to-head polls by larger margins than Giuliani, Thompson or McCain. Republicans might not be smacking their heads if Romney wins, but Democrats will surely be popping corks.

This then is the slim chance for McCain: Faced with historical precedent and a fervent wish not to lose the White House, Republican voters might settle on someone who has just barely survived through September. From our present vantage point, such a scenario seems like an impossibility. Forget the war, what about McCain-Feingold or McCain-Kennedy or any of the various ways McCain has angered the conservative base? But don't the other candidates all come with their own set of impossibilities? Yes, and one will prove possible.

Blake D. Dvorak is an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics.

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