- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The protracted, almost unendurable 2008 campaign season for the national Republican Party began in the extreme pain of its losses in the 2006 elections, and under the historical precedents that few parties in the past seven decades have won more than two presidential elections in a row.

After a period of controlling the White House and the Congress, Republicans now face the prospect of controlling none of them, and having their significant recent gains wiped out.

To make matters worse, large numbers of their veteran members of Congress have decided to retire, and not a few of those, previously safe Republicans, will now be competitive. The likely nominee for president, Sen. John McCain, faces an insurrection in his own party among some who feel his long record in Congress is not conservative enough. They threaten to bolt the party in November. Finally, Republican turnout in the primaries and caucuses so far has been far less than the Democratic turnout in most cases, indicating a relative lack of enthusiasm for the 2008 campaign.

On its face, it does not seem that things could get worse than this. But beneath the face of these circumstances is another set of circumstances.

The catalysts for Republican defeat in 2006, the war in Iraq and political scandals at home, have faded from primary public controversy. A military surge in Iraq, initiated by President Bush but vitally encouraged and supported by Mr. McCain, seems to be working. A mood of national defeat has been transformed to a mood of some optimism. The Democratic Party, initially expected to settle early on its presidential candidate, has been stalemated with its two top contenders in a campaign likely to approach if not reach its national convention before being resolved. The Democrat-controlled Congress is led by unattractive, ineffective figures. Congress has become even more unpopular than the outgoing president.

With Mr. McCain as the Republican candidate for president, the GOP goes into uncharted seas for this election.

Republicans have no reasonable prospect of regaining control of either the Senate or the House. They are likely to lose seats in both bodies. Although Mr. McCain is, by any definition I know, a political conservative, he appears to be alienated from a considerable portion of the GOP conservative base. Should Hillary Clinton be nominated by the Democrats to run against him, most of that unhappy base will ultimately vote for him, but there will be noticeable defections by the far right, cheered on by social-conservative spokespeople and some radio talk-show hosts, no matter who the Democrats choose.

Political conversation now turns to Mr. McCain’s efforts to make some kind of peace with unhappy conservatives, and with his choice for vice president. Conventional wisdom argues that he will move quite to the right in both tasks.

Mr. McCain has been, throughout this political season, the only Republican with a reasonable prospect of winning the 2008 election.

But he is not only a maverick. He is a crusty and often unpleasant one in his political relationships. His appeal to independents and conservative-to-moderate Democrats has been demonstrated repeatedly in the primary season. What he and his advisors must now decide is how much an abrupt tilt to the right will cost him in the general election in November.

If conservative hardliners will not compromise, there is little to be gained in chasing their ghostly figures.

Just as Mr. McCain has serious problems with the conservative base, Mrs. Clinton has serious problems outside her political base. These are “poll negatives” that do not seem to go away.

If she defeats Mr. Obama for the nomination, most of his vote will easily fall in behind her. Most partisan Democrats intensely want to win the presidency in 2008, and will support either candidate enthusiastically against Mr. McCain. Mrs. Clinton’s nomination, however, would create a particular opportunity for the Republican nominee in the political center where he is already credible.

It is unlikely that Mrs. Clinton’s negatives will simply go away. They are grounded in her political history and her political personality.

Independent and centrist voters may no longer support President Bush, and may now oppose many of his policies, but there is no evidence that most of them feel the anger and intensity that partisan liberal Democrats do. The dilemma for the Democrats is that it is these voters who will determine the outcome of the 2008 election. The dilemma for John McCain is that he cannot afford to alienate the political center as he tries to bring unity to his own party.

This political year has seen more turns, twists and surprises than any in memory. There is no reason to think, having come his far, and with the agonizing choices facing both party’s campaigns ahead, that more shocks and surprises do not lie ahead.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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