- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 28, 2006

Sen. John McCain is now the so-called frontrunner for his party’s nomination and his election as president in 2008. That’s not too far away, but it’s far enough to pause before making any breathless predictions about what is actually going to happen.

The current conventional wisdom, mostly contained in media self-accounts and introspective analyses, is that there has been a change of heart in the media which hitherto was drawn to Mr. McCain’s dramatic life story, his loss of the 2000 nomination and his attention to them. Mr. McCain, then and now, openly courts the media. But it may not matter much what the media thinks and says about John McCain these days.

Mr. McCain, a lifelong conservative, has filled his congressional record with several playing-against-conservative-type initiatives, several of which have become law. And in the course of his political travels, he has crossed swords with many who are bete noires to the left and liberals, and made common cause with several Democratic icons. This has not only attracted the media, it has won broad support for Mr. McCain with the general American voter. I think it is fair to say that John McCain is the only national politician in America running for president in 2008 who now enjoys genuine support from voters in the opposing party.

That was then and now, but what will it be like in the future? As with everyone in politics (and life in general), Mr. McCain has shortcomings. He shoots from the rhetorical hip, he sometimes angers his political base with maverick tendencies, he is thin-skinned, he is much older than most presidential candidates and, until recently, showed few signs of being a team player. He also angers his conservative friends because he does not always oppose tax increases, and his campaign reform law has not been a success.

Of late, however, he has demonstrated self-discipline, a willingness to work with his colleagues and President Bush, a nuanced ability to speak (most notably in his speech to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University) and savvy political judgment in his quest for the presidency.

In his apperances around the country, Mr. McCain shows vitality and energy, belying his age and his recovery from cancer. He handled his recent appearance at New York City’s New School, and its students’ rudeness and boos, with aplomb.

Does this mean the Republican race is over for 2008? Not at all. Other serious candidates are in the field, and we have yet to hear from Republican voters in a single primary or caucus.

Sen. George Allen of Virginia remains as many Republicans’ favorite dark horse. Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts continues to give strong speeches across the country. Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, hurt by the Senate’s recent inactions, still has a great story to tell. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas is a favorite of social conservatives. Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas has a good record and a winning personality.

And not least, the shadow of former Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia casts itself over the whole debate of the issues facing the nation now and in 2008.

Just as Mr. McCain is the only national politician today with appeal that reaches across party lines, Mr. Gingrich is the only national politician today with the ability to speak about issues that crosses party lines. He would dominate the public debate if he were to enter his candidacy for president in 2008. He is also young enough to wait out 2008, and to run another time. Mr. McCain does not have this luxury.

In many ways, the Republican Party needs Mr. Gingrich’s presence during the campaign of 2008, candidate or not. He, more than anyone, reminds the country that the Republican Party is still the party of new ideas and new solutions. Combined with Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman’s outreach to black voters (and black candidates for high office), Mr. Bush’s persistent sensitivity to Hispanic voters and his significant appointment of minority cabinet officers, judges and federal officials, the Republican Party (in spite of current polls and dissatisfaction with the Administration over Iraq) remains in good shape in the decade coming.

Messrs. Romney, Allen, Huckabee are still young. And already two generations of Bushes, including Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and his son, George P. Bush, are waiting to take their place in the family dynasty, which has put the perennially dysfunctional Kennedy dynasty into the past tense.

There are 29 months before a new president is elected. Much can and will happen before that election day. The Democrats are not without candidates or resources, including the significant potential political candidacy now being put together by former Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia.

It is John McCain, however, with the early momentum, a powerful story to tell and a gritty charisma that somehow persists through the tribulations of his party and the nation he has served in so many ways.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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