McCain's Good Luck

John McCain faces a well nigh impossible challenge over the next few weeks. How to consolidate the conservative base, which still broke for Mike Huckabee Tuesday in Texas, without forfeiting his reputation as a maverick and his appeal to Independent voters? Hillary Clinton’s wins in Ohio and Texas, ensuring that the Democratic nomination will continue until at least April 22nd, provides McCain with just the opening he needs. McCain’s first challenge is to replenish the coffers. While he may not be able to spend much more money due to his earlier decision to accept federal matching funds, the Republican National Committee can essentially serve as the conduit for campaign cash for the next few months. Second, he must genuflect at various and sundry conservative idols, paying homage and tribute as needed to bring them on board. He must manufacture a series of reverse-Sister Souljah moments, like yesterday’s embrace by George W. Bush, to enhance his status among conservatives. General elections are binary choices, so there is little chance that conservatives will flock to Obama or Clinton. The danger is that much of the conservative base will stay home, a trend already apparent in the shocking disparity between turnout in GOP primaries from the record-setting turnouts seen on the Democratic side. With all the media attention focused on the Dem slugfest, however, McCain can make his peace with the conservative base in relative peace and quiet. Third, McCain can focus on key swing states. He does not have to spend his own money trying to take down Obama or Clinton. They will be doing that dirty work for him themselves, with their ads and their mailings. Pennsylvania is a perennial swing state and both Obama and Clinton will have much higher negative ratings there by April 22 then they have today. Meanwhile, McCain is free to spend time campaigning in Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Florida and other key swing states where he will have the airwaves to himself. Most importantly, McCain can spend the next seven weeks framing the debate. Instead of having to defend differences with President Bush or with GOP mainstream, he can focus on ways he has differed with Bush that appeal to both swing voters and conservatives, especially his opposition to run away spending in the Congress and his consistent criticism of pre-surge strategy in Iraq. He can argue that any Democrat will raise taxes and increase spending, but that he won’t. And, he can use the time on the stump to become better at discussing the economy, a current weakness McCain must overcome. A new poll this morning shows McCain trailing Obama 52-40% in a general election matchup and losing to Hillary Clinton by 50-44%. Do not believe those numbers. Seven weeks hence, they will be very different. Michael Sean Winters
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