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GOP Straw Poll: Over Before It Starts?

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) plans to urge attendees at this weekend's Southern Republican Leadership Conference gathering to write-in President George W. Bush's name in the Saturday straw poll, according to an excerpt of his remarks shown to The Fix this afternoon.

Here's the line from McCain's prepared remarks: "Straw polls are entertaining, my friend, even extremely early ones. But I think we have bigger things to worry about. So if any friends here are thinking about voting for me, please don't. Just write in President Bush's name."

McCain's gambit, which will be formalized when he addresses the crowd at around 10:00 p.m. ET tonight, throws the meaning and impact of the straw poll into turmoil. With McCain urging conference-goers not to vote for him, it could invalidate the ultimate result or -- at the very least -- give the Arizona senator and his staff a justifiable excuse if he has a poor showing.

It's tough to decide how the McCain strategy will play out. On one hand, it could help McCain lure Bush supporters in attendance who want the party to keep their eye on the 2006 midterms rather than looking ahead to 2008. McCain is working hard behind the scenes to win establishment Republicans over to his candidacy, and this could well be read as another move in that game.

But it could also signal some level of weakness on McCain's part, a "take my ball and go home" mentality. After all, he is speaking at the event, and until a few hours ago was participating in the straw poll -- if not actively whipping up support for it.

Advisers to some of McCain's rivals immediately sought to portray the Arizonan's move as sign that he was concerned about the impact of losing the straw poll on his frontrunning candidacy. Chuck Todd, editor-in-chief of The Hotline, which is conducting tomorrow's straw poll, echoed that sentiment. "In some ways he's acknowledging the results matter," Todd said.

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 10, 2006; 3:45 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , Republican Party  
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