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McCain and the Disaffected GOP Base


John McCain returns a salute to veterans at a campaign event in Florence, S.C. (AP).

By Dan Balz
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- John McCain's route to the Republican nomination in 2008 has long been fraught with contradictions.

Could the maverick of 2000 become the establishment favorite in 2008? Could McCain run as both an opponent and proponent of President Bush's Iraq war strategy? Could the opponent of Bush's tax cuts convincingly explain why he was now a defender? Could the leading Senate advocate for comprehensive immigration reform persuade conservatives he had become a secure-the-borders-first believer? Could the politician who has never led on social issues become a convincing pro-lifer?

All those strands will come together in South Carolina on Saturday, when McCain's campaign will receive either a significant boost or a major setback. A victory in Saturday's primary could give the Arizona senator valuable momentum heading toward the next critical GOP contest in Florida. A loss, coming five days after his defeat in Michigan, could make his win in New Hampshire look like an aberration and leave him struggling.

But no matter the outcome here, there remains an incongruity to his candidacy that he will be confronting as he seeks to bind together a fractured Republican coalition. He seeks to be the establishment choice, but the exit polls from early states indicate that he is now the candidate of the discontented.

Exit polls from the two states where he competed most vigorously -- New Hampshire and Michigan -- show that McCain is the favorite of those Republicans who are least happy with the president. He is the candidate of those who are unhappy with the Iraq war. He is the candidate of those who are most worried about the economy. Can he become the true leader of his party largely on the basis of that appeal?

Start with attitudes about the president. In Michigan, Mitt Romney beat McCain by 20 points among those Republican voters who said they had positive feelings about the Bush administration. McCain won by 11 points among those who said they had negative feelings about the administration. In New Hampshire, he beat Romney by 14 points among those who have negative feelings toward the administration, while losing narrowly among those who said they were positive.

McCain put his candidacy on the line last winter by supporting Bush's troop surge policy, but in both Michigan and New Hampshire, he was the choice of those opposed to the war rather than those who support it. In Michigan, Romney beat him by 15 points among the more than three-in-five Republican voters who expressed approval for the war, while McCain won more narrowly among those opposed. In New Hampshire, he won by 25 points among anti-Iraq GOP voters, but lost among those who support the war.

Those numbers suggest McCain is on the wrong side of two fault lines in the Republican party, favored by the minority who oppose the war and by the larger minority who are truly unhappy with the Bush administration. His success in coming events may depend in part on the size of those constituencies.

Attitudes toward the economy tell a similar story about McCain's appeal to the disaffected. Much was made about Romney's victory in Michigan and the role economic anxiety played in his success. But the exit polls showed that Romney did best among those Michigan voters who had positive views about the economy, not those most worried about it.

Three in 10 Michigan voters said the economy was in good shape, and Romney beat McCain among them by 20 points. Among the half of the electorate who said it was not so good, Romney won narrowly over McCain, while among the roughly one-in-six who said it was in poor shape, McCain narrowly defeated Romney. In New Hampshire, McCain won among voters worried about the economy, while Romney won among those not particularly worried.

In the latest Washington Post-ABC News national poll, McCain has a statistically significant lead over his rivals among those Republicans who disapprove of Bush, but not among those who approve of the president. The same is true of attitudes toward Bush on the economy.

McCain was in Columbia Thursday afternoon for a rally inside a rain-soaked tent adjacent to his campaign headquarters. It was a rally in search of a simple message.

State legislators rose to praise McCain for his courage, leadership, steadfastness on Iraq and backbone. "You may not have always agreed with him on every issue," said one, "but you knew where he stood."

His wife, Cindy, introduced him as an exemplar of family values. She related the story of bringing a baby with serious medical needs back to the United States at the urging of Mother Teresa and then telling her husband upon arrival in Los Angeles that she wanted them to take the child into their home. This was the same child who made McCain and his wife targets of a vicious smear campaign here in the 2000 primary.

Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma offered McCain cover on the issue of abortion. But Coburn also seemed to speak for the old Bob Dole, green eye-shade wing of the Republican divide on fiscal policy, touting McCain's determination to cut spending and rein in the deficit. Jack Kemp, the very symbol of supply-side Republicanism, offered praise from the opposite direction as he spoke effusively about the power of cutting taxes. "John McCain," he said, "will get us out of this recession."

McCain is entertaining, if not always convincing, when he talks about the economy -- one of his least favorite topics. He prefers to talk about national security and other issues, but he knows now that, with the housing market in crisis, the stock market tumbling and economic anxiety rising, he must talk about it -- and so he did.

He promised tax and spending cuts, railed against Democrats who want to repeal the Bush tax cuts for wealthy Americans and promised to bring back Alan Greenspan to head a commission to overhaul the tax code that would present Congress with an up-or-down package.

"Whether he's alive or dead, it doesn't matter," he said to laughter from the audience about making Greenspan the commission leader. "Put some dark glasses on him like [the movie] 'Weekend at Bernie's.'"

Ticking through the names of his economic brains trust, McCain added, "I don't pretend to know all the answers, my friends, and I'm not going to look you in the eye and tell you that I do. But I'll tell you, I'm going to surround myself with people that know most of the answers."

Throughout the long campaign, McCain has tried to learn from the lessons of 2000 and make himself more acceptable to the Republican voters in general and the party establishment in particular. In some important ways he's managed to do that.

But his remains a candidacy based on grievance and a willingness to say unpopular things. Whether that will be enough to win the Republican nomination in this very unusual year isn't clear now, and may not be for some time. But as McCain likes to say, he isn't running for president to do the easy things.

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 18, 2008; 1:39 PM ET
Categories:  Dan Balz's Take  
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