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McCain's Electability Argument

By Reid Wilson

Democrats are right to be optimistic about this year's elections. Their party, most agree, is positioned well to pick up seats in the House and Senate, and recent polls show not only that a generic presidential Democrat would trump a Republican, but that their front-runners outpace named opponents from across the aisle. Republican primary voters are increasingly worried about electability, their biggest fear being a Hillary Clinton presidency.

It is no wonder, then, that when GOP candidates are not squabbling over immigration, judicial appointments or tax rates, they each boast that they alone can beat Clinton in November. The Democrat is a guaranteed applause line, so much so that in a Republican debate last month in Orlando Clinton garnered more mentions than Ronald Reagan, while no other Democrat was mentioned.

Assertions that one candidate can beat Clinton while others can't range from the ideological, evidenced by early conservative yearning for a Fred Thompson bid to unite the base, to the practical, as seen when Mitt Romney promises the party can't win by acting like Clinton, to the electoral, when Rudy Giuliani says he will put states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, traditionally Democratic-leaning electoral votes, in play.

But it is John McCain whose electability argument rings truest. And, in fact, McCain's point is the simplest to make to Republican primary voters: In poll after poll, he runs closer to Clinton than any GOP contender other than Giuliani, with whom he is approximately tied. The latest RCP Averages show Clinton leading McCain by 2.8 points, about the same as Giuliani's 2.5 point deficit. Thompson trails by 8.1 points, while Romney is 11 points back.

Pollsters say that is no accident, and if Republicans who head to the polls really do make electability a priority, then swallowing doubts about the maverick would give them the best shot at winning the White House.

Giuliani, polls show, would give Clinton a race. But where McCain does have an edge over Giuliani is among independents, a critical group that will sway the election. A recent Fox News poll, released two weeks ago, shows 51% of independents have a favorable opinion of the senator, higher than every other candidate, though only narrowly edging out Rudy Giuliani's 49%. Still, while 36% of independents view Giuliani in an unfavorable light, just 28% view McCain the same way.

The same poll shows McCain narrowly trailing Clinton by a single point, 46%-45%. Giuliani trails by four, Thompson by nine and Romney by thirteen. Among independents, McCain enjoys a nine-point advantage, much higher than the next-highest Republican, Giuliani, who has a two-point edge over Clinton there.

Romney has recently made a point of comparing Giuliani's stand on social issues to Clinton's similar views. And while Republicans may fight over those distinctions, Giuliani, say pollsters, is viewed similarly to Clinton in one important way. "There's an edge to Rudy, much the same as there's a perceived edge to Hillary," pollster John Zogby said. "Rudy has a lot of those negatives that generate bad feelings from the other side, just as Hillary does."

Given the national mood, two candidates with a harsh edge could cause independents to default to the Democrat, their pick on a generic ballot. But with a candidate who appeals more to the center, the GOP may have hope. "There is a faction of [independents and Democrats] who are 'Anybody But Clinton,'" said pollster Ann Selzer, whose Iowa-based company conducts polls for the Des Moines Register. "If you get those independents and Democrats who are sort of anti-Clinton, I think your strongest candidate is going to be someone like McCain."

"Particularly with independent voters, it's more of a comfortability issue" that gives McCain the edge, said Del Ali, of Research 2000. Clinton, seen as divisive by many, "may not be as polarizing when matched up with Giuliani or Romney."

McCain is no stranger to independent voters. His surprising insurgent campaign in 2000 attracted thousands of independents to choose Republican ballots in New Hampshire that year, handing him a huge upset over George W. Bush. From campaign finance reform to bashing earmarks and federal spending, McCain has continued to help himself with those who don't associate with either party.

"This is an election," says Zogby, "that's going to be won in the center." McCain's propensity for bucking all things Washington - be they Democratic or Republican pet issues or projects - positions him perfectly for that atmosphere. "McCain is Mr. Center. It was only when he tried to appeal to the Republican base that he un-defined the real John McCain."

Campaign finance reform, though, hurt McCain with conservative groups. His support for comprehensive immigration reform has failed to win back any right-leaning activists. But while McCain's favorable ratings among Republicans are lower than Giuliani's, the senator and the mayor won the same amount of GOP support against Clinton, the Fox poll found, at 82%. A Quinnipiac University poll from late October actually found McCain outperforming Giuliani by a few points among Republicans.

In short, conservatives do not necessarily like John McCain. But faced with the choice of McCain or Clinton, their decision becomes pretty easy.

So while McCain struggles to regain footing he lost earlier this year, the key to his chances may be among independents who boosted his candidacy eight years ago. "He was a very appealing candidate in 2000, and when you listen to him, he's very earnest and sincere and convinced, I think, and that comes off as very attractive," Selzer said.

McCain, though, faces an uphill battle to get out of his own primary. He has all but pulled out of Iowa and trails in New Hampshire, the key to his meteoric rise during the last campaign, and South Carolina, a state for which he once had high hopes. His standing among independents and his ability to attract them to the party, said Ali, "becomes irrelevant if he's not the nominee." And, perhaps, so does any chance the GOP has of reconnecting with a segment of the voting public that could carry them to victory.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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