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McCain Emerging as Establishment Pick?

The stunning arc of Republican Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign is a testament to the cliché of never saying never in politics. Seemingly done and out of the running in late August, McCain now is on the cusp of victory in tomorrow's New Hampshire's primary, a win that would almost certainly install him (again) as the GOP establishment favorite for the nomination.

VIDEO | GOP presidential contender John McCain says he thinks he could beat potential Democratic nominee Barack Obama, and that he has no regrets about attacking Mitt Romney. (

A McCain win would badly imperil the candidacy of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney whose entire campaign strategy is predicated on scoring early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. If he goes 0-2 in those two states, it would be hard to imagine Romney remaining viable - although his campaign would likely fight on at least until the Jan. 15 Michigan primary before making a final no-go decision.

With Romney pushed aside, the field would narrow to McCain and former governor Mike Huckabee (Ark.), the surprise winner of the Iowa caucuses. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani continues to wait and hope that the nomination contest will remain wide open through the Jan. 29 Florida's primary, but that remains a long-shot proposition at best.

And, in a McCain-Huckabee race, it's nearly certain that droves of party regulars would flock to the Arizona senator's campaign, according to a number of unaffiliated Republican strategists.

"If it looks like this race is coming down to a two-way contest between McCain and Huckabee, Huckabee's anti-establishment campaign essentially guarantees McCain becomes the choice of the party's leadership despite his occasional contrarian viewpoints," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse.

Sara Taylor, a former White House political director and now a GOP media consultant, echoed that sentiment. She called McCain a "known quantity" with a strong record on national security and life issues, two pillars of the Republican Party's foundational principles.

Should the Republican establishment coalesce behind McCain's candidacy, it would be a back to the future moment for the Arizona senator.

Following his bitter loss to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the 2000 nomination fight, McCain went through a dark time in terms of his relationship with the party establishment. But, by 2004, McCain had reconciled his differences with Bush and had fallen back in line, working as a loyal foot soldier for Bush and the Republican Party.

As it became clear that McCain would run again for president in 2008, the party establishment seemed to believe it was his time. (A Republican friend of The Fix always jokes that his party has "quasi-monarchical" tendencies, preferring to reward the guy (or gal) seen as next in the order of succession.) Governors, senators and House members offered their early support for McCain as did any number of former Bush Administration officials.

But, McCain chafed under the constraints of running as the establishment pick. He looked uncomfortable on the trail, especially in defending Bush's unpopular Iraq war policies. He lacked passion in his formal speeches and watched as the massive campaign machinery he had built collapsed under its own weight.

In a recent interview, McCain acknowledged that by late this summer he had lost connection with the very voters who had spurred him to a near-upset of Bush in 2000, and, by early September, state and national polling seemed to suggest that McCain's candidacy was damaged beyond repair.

Romney stepped into the breach, piling up establishment endorsements and seeking to cast himself as the second coming of beloved former President Ronald Reagan.

But, through sheer will, McCain kept most (although far from all) of his early establishment support -- elected officials, party poobahs and major donors - from defecting. And, with a single-minded focus on New Hampshire and early and continued support for President Bush's Iraq troop surge proposal; McCain clawed his way back -- first to respectability and now to real viability. He was helped by outside events; immigration, an issue that had hurt him badly over the summer, disappeared from the legislative agenda, and the situation in Iraq seemed to stabilize as a result of the troop increase.

Over the last few days, McCain's improved political health has started to attract more support from the GOP establishment. Former congressman and 1996 vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp endorsed McCain this morning; yesterday, McCain received the backing of nearly 100 former Reagan Administration officials and the endorsement of Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R).

If McCain can win New Hampshire and follow that up a week later with a win in Michigan, expect the stampede of establishment backing to begin.

Remember that the party establishment is that most cautious of creatures - always hedging its bets to ensure maximum chance of success. But, as one senior Republican strategist put it: "If McCain wins New Hampshire and Michigan, he will have earned one of the final seeds for the nomination, earning him increased support from Republican leaders, donors and activists."

That doesn't mean that all of the concerns about McCain have dissipated. Many within the party's base don't trust McCain due to his support for a comprehensive immigration reform measure and his strong advocacy for campaign finance reform - legislation that they believe has badly hamstrung grassroots political activity.

And, because of the fact McCain collapsed the last time he looked like the Republican establishment frontrunner, there will be some who remain hesitant or unwilling to throw their support to him again.

Ed Rogers, a longtime Republican lobbyist and one of the senior operatives in the party, puts it best, however, when it comes to McCain's relationship with the party establishment.

"Some conservatives and some party establishment types have crossed paths and swords with him in the past so he will never get them all," Rogers said. "But you don't need them all."

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 7, 2008; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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