- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Mitt Romney stepped to the sidelines. Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul can’t pull off a victory. Will John McCain?

In the wake of Mr. Romney’s announcement yesterday that he is “suspending” his presidential campaign, the Republican nomination is clearly his to lose. Job No. 1 for McCain campaign is pulling off primary victories in other key states — including Louisiana, Virginia, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Republicans also must ponder the critical issue of a running mate. Some are trying to depict Mr. McCain’s apparent front-runner status as evidence that conservatism has somehow been repudiated by Republicans. But that’s a complete misreading of what actually happened. The senator did not win primary after primary by touting his support for open borders, McCain-Feingold or expensive climate-change legislation. In fact, he did just the opposite.

Mr. McCain ran and won by portraying himself as as a principled conservative who began his congressional career more than a quarter-century ago as “a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution.” On illegal immigration, he said he “got the message” from the defeat of 2007’s amnesty bill. Mr. McCain emphasized the need for tougher controls at the border and sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens and during an interview on Spanish-language television indicated support for reducing the number of illegals by attrition. He spoke of the need to extend the Bush tax cuts, and pointed to his opposition to porkbarrel spending. Mr. McCain emphasized his pro-life votes in Congress and said he would appoint “strict constructionist” judges like Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

By far the most positive, underappreciated thing about Mr. McCain’s Senate record is his role in mobilizing support for the troop “surge” in Iraq. Today, thanks to the exceptional talent of Gen. David Petraeus, the surge has helped stabilize some of Iraq’s most dangerous regions. But, in all likelihood, the change in strategy would never have taken place if it had not been for Mr. McCain, who risked his political career to make it a reality.

Six months ago, when the Iraq strategy’s success was uncertain, Mr. McCain’s presidential campaign appeared to be on the verge of collapse. But as it became clear that the situation in Iraq was improving dramatically, the senator’s campaign began to take off. John McCain’s exemplary record of foreign policy leadership on Iraq (and in making some very cogent, even Churchillian arguments about the dangers posed by the rogue-state nuclear arsenals of Iran and North Korea) is by far the strongest argument for electing him president.

But it would be foolish to pretend that conservatives don’t have major problems with Mr. McCain that, if left unaddressed, would doom his candidacy. He simply has — time and again over the past decade and a half — played a leading role in advocating policies that are coveted by liberals and Democrats, issues such as illegal immigration; the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance “reform” bill; massively expensive “climate change” legislation and opposition to oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He also opposed the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference yesterday, Mr. McCain began the process of dialogue with conservatives. But he needs to do much more. The most important thing Mr. McCain could do to unite the party would be to select a conservative running mate who combines some of the strengths of Mr. Romney and Mr. Huckabee. For example, to help Mr. McCain in the South, where he has struggled to get past 35 percent of the vote in primary after primary, a running mate should hold the conservative social views of Mr. Huckabee on issues such as abortion and homosexual “marriage.” At the same time, Mr. McCain would do well to choose someone with views similar to those of Mr. Romney on issues such as tax cuts, illegal immigration, energy policy and environmental regulations in general.

In sum, the best thing John McCain could do to unite the Republican Party against the Democratic Party would be to pick a conservative running mate who has the best political qualities of his top Republican rivals.

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