21 Jan 2008

McCain Primary-Win Analysis

In the wake of McCain’s victory over rivals Romney and Huckabee in South Carolina, there’s been no shortage of analysis. Some of the best, in my opinion, has come from the Washington Post’s “The Trail” campaign blog. Although nothing is certain, it’s looking more and more like he’s the only viable Republican candidate, and the general election will be either Clinton or Obama vs McCain.

Although South Carolina contains just as many evangelical Christians as Iowa (about 60% according to WiPo), far fewer of them were interested in drinking the Huckabee Kool-Aid this time around. Whether this is because of differences in campaign strategy – Huckabee had far longer to spend in Iowa, for starters – or in changing perceptions of his viability isn’t certain. But it can’t be good for him, and it can’t be anything but good for McCain.

Really, though, the McCain/Huckabee race isn’t anything new. It’s essentially the same internecine fight between the old guard and the newer, ‘faith-based’ Right, just as McCain/Bush was in 2000. Except that while Bush was moderate enough (in Republican terms) to capture both Evangelicals and traditional conservatives, Huckabee is proving too frightening, too populist, and overall too nonsecular to do the same. McCain’s decisive win in S.C., the state where his 2000 campaign finally stalled, should be indication enough to the Huckabee camp that they can’t follow the Bush plan to victory.

Although it’s too much to expect the Huckabee camp to just give up and go home quietly, the S.C. primary would seem to move the focus over to McCain vs Romney. Unlike the case with Huckabee, where each represents a distinct faction within the Republican party, the battle lines here are more fluid. Romney purports to be the last of a dying breed: a ‘Yankee Republican,’ fiscally conservative and comparatively socially liberal. McCain, on the other hand, has spent years cultivating his image as a ‘maverick.’ Both are self-described moderates, and both would court the same independent and swing-vote bloc in a general election.

Ultimately I think Romney’s Mormonism and accusations of being a ‘crypto-liberal’ hurt him more than McCain’s ‘professional politician’ background can in reverse (clumsy attempts at swift boating nonwithstanding), and ultimately Romney will be viewed as too controversial to even be left with a VP slot.

But time will tell, and there’s not that long left to wait.

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