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The Formidable McCain

By David Broder

WASHINGTON -- The continuing drama of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination should not diminish what John McCain has accomplished on the Republican side of this campaign.

The senator from Arizona still has to finish off the challenges from Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, but after Tuesday's victories in such key states as California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Missouri, and a commanding lead in delegates, the question is when, not if, he will secure the nomination.

Were it not for the suspense in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the saga of McCain's eight-month struggle from the brink of political bankruptcy last summer to his current supremacy would be the most riveting narrative of the year.

What is more, he has emerged -- despite all the negatives of the George Bush legacy -- as a serious possibility to win the presidency in November.

On Super Tuesday, I placed calls to a number of knowledgeable Republicans, Democrats and neutral observers to check their appraisals of McCain as a general-election candidate. I found him consolidating support within his own party and being treated with great respect by Democrats.

Arizona's Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, who sees her home-state senator at close range, said, "He is not to be underestimated." An Obama supporter, Napolitano said McCain is "a gifted campaigner with a great life story. When everything seemed to go wrong for him last year, I told people, 'Never write John McCain off.'"

Former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, neutral since John Edwards withdrew from the race, told me he thought McCain would be "very tough" competition. Don Fowler, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and a Clinton supporter, who saw McCain campaign successfully in his state of South Carolina, said, "He is the best possible candidate for the Republicans by any measure I can see."

There were some dissents. Gail Kaufman, a savvy California Democrat, said that McCain's policy positions, including his anti-abortion stance, would cripple him in that state.

But I was struck by the warming tone toward McCain from conservative Republicans I reached in Wisconsin, Ohio and Louisiana, despite the barrage of criticism from Rush Limbaugh & Co.

And Newt Gingrich told me, "We disagree on some issues, but I'd rather fight him in the White House than either of those Democrats. He has come back because of one thing -- his courage. As a populist, I love it."

That message is underlined by the recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. It showed McCain in a statistical tie with either Democrat, leading Clinton by 49 percent to 46 percent, and trailing Obama by a similar margin.

In either scenario, women break for the Democratic candidate. McCain leads Clinton by 13 points among men, but only runs even with Obama. Party lines are sharp, and the battle for independents would be close. Currently, independents give McCain a 12-point lead over Clinton but favor Obama by 6 points over the Republican.

A fascinating dynamic appears when voters are asked to judge the candidates' strength and experience versus their new ideas and potential for bringing change. McCain and Clinton match closely in both dimensions, while McCain leads Obama by 20 points on strength and experience, but Obama has a 31-point edge on representing a new direction.

Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster, suggests that McCain, nearing 72, "will look older and older" if he is matched against the youthful Obama. But he also notes that in 1988, when Michael Dukakis was the "change" candidate of the younger generation that Democrats put forward, George H.W. Bush won by offering "stability in a time of transition."

Clearly, McCain's age will be more of an issue in the general election than in the primaries. And so will his steadfast position on Iraq, symbolized by his support of the troop surge and his declaration that U.S. troops might have to remain there for 100 years. In the Post poll, McCain is competitive with Clinton and Obama on both the economy and health care, though trailing slightly, but he loses badly among voters for whom the war in Iraq is the top issue. Tim Hibbits, an independent pollster in Oregon, said, "People admire McCain's principled stand against cutting and running, but it doesn't answer the question why the hell we are there."

Still, McCain is the only candidate in either party with a favorable personal rating by Republicans, Democrats, independents and evangelical voters. He will be formidable.

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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