- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Sen. John McCain, who took a major step last night toward locking down the Republican nomination, matches up in a general election far better against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton than Sen. Barack Obama, according to election strategists and pollsters.

“With Hillary Clinton, John McCain would start as a very moderate favorite,” pollster Scott Rasmussen said. “McCain would have the edge among independent voters. He is viewed very favorably by independents and Senator Clinton struggles in that area.”

Pollster John Zogby agreed, saying, “Obama does better against McCain than Hillary does because she is so polarizing. … A lot of people will simply be voting against her.”

The senator from Arizona beats the senator from New York in 14 of 17 head-to-head polls taken since Dec. 6, but he wins just five of 17 against the senator from Illinois over the same period. Analysts say Mrs. Clinton is so divisive that she would drive moderates and some independents to Mr. McCain. Mr. Obama, conversely, could draw from the pool of supporters who have delivered wins to Mr. McCain in a host of presidential primaries.

“Hillary Clinton will help drive conservatives and independents McCain’s way overnight,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed. “I believe that would be a more attractive race for Republicans.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney matches up far worse against the two Democrats. In polls on a head-to-head matchup with Mrs. Clinton stretching back more than a year, Mr. Romney topped the senator just twice in 77 surveys.

In 55 polls against Mr. Obama, he lost in every one. An ABC News/Washington Post poll from Friday put the senator up by 25 points.

Both Democratic candidates can draw sharp distinctions with Mr. McCain on the Iraq war, which he steadfastly supported, even as his presidential campaign imploded over the summer. Mrs. Clinton voted for the war but now opposes it, and Mr. Obama delivered a 2002 speech opposing the invasion of Iraq.

“McCain will have trouble with both Clinton and Obama because they want to get out of Iraq sooner than later and McCain has talked about staying there — perhaps for 100 years,” said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. “So regardless of the Democratic nominee, when it comes to Iraq, McCain is going to face a real challenge in the general election on a matter that is considered his strong suit yet one the majority of voters now oppose.”

Each matchup presents a dramatically different set of parameters. A McCain-Obama battle would highlight age and experience, pitting the 46-year-old freshman senator against the 71-year-old four-term senator, an authority on foreign policy and national security. Mr. McCain likely would use face-to-face debates to highlight his 25-year tenure in government and seek to portray Mr. Obama as a political neophyte not ready for the presidency.

“Every time they have a face-off, it’s going to drive some of those independents away from the Democratic Party,” Republican strategist Scott Reed said. “There will be a sharp contrast on experience and depth of knowledge when it comes to Obama.”

Mr. Obama already has targeted Mr. McCain — and Mrs. Clinton — on the war, an issue many independents oppose. “When I’m the nominee, John McCain will not be able to say, ‘Well, you supported the war just like I did,’ ” Mr. Obama said Monday.

Mr. McCain used the comments to highlight Mr. Obama’s short tenure on the national stage. “It’s a product of his inexperience,” he told reporters. “And we’ll be highlighting that.”

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign suggests she best matches up against Mr. McCain, and touts her experience.

“If John McCain becomes the Republican nominee, Hillary is the Democrat who can beat him because she has the strength and experience a president needs to get America on the right course and to defend it against future threats,” Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn said.

Mr. McCain faces additional trouble from within his own party. He has drawn harsh criticism from conservative leaders, from talk-show host Rush Limbaugh to James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. “I am convinced Senator McCain is not a conservative and, in fact, has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are,” Mr. Dobson said yesterday.

Strategists and pundits predict conservatives will return to the fold if Mr. McCain becomes the nominee. In fact, Mr. McCain could even benefit from his break with hard-core conservatives.

“It’s a better trade-off to give up some of the hard-right Republicans to pick up far more moderates and independents, which is precisely what will happen, but he will still finesse the conservatives,” Mr. Zogby said. “Do they really want Hillary? No, so they’ll all be back.”

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