With about six percent of the vote in (I'm just guessing at the number), we can now project that John McCain will be the Republican nominee for president of the United States. In fact, we'll go a step further: McCain will dominate the Super Tuesday primaries next week to the point that Mitt Romney's campaign will be all but over before Valentine's Day. We're not yet prepared to announce McCain's running mate, but the short list will begin with the names of socially conservative, economically successful GOP governors with a record of toughness—or at least tough talk—on immigration. (Shame for Mike Huckabee that he blew it by running for president.)
So exactly how does a four point defeat in one state doom Romney, who trails McCain this morning by only 23 delegates? Simple. Rudy Giuliani's exit from the race is imminent, and the scandal-ridden former mayor appears poised to endorse his fellow war hawk. But even if he doesn't, McCain will still pick up most of what's left of the Giuliani base, providing him with an additional ten percent of the vote, more or less. Huckabee, still enjoying his momentary celebrity, seems determined to soldier forward despite the increasingly negative verdict of the GOP electorate. Huckabee's persistence will deprive Romney of his full share of socially conservative voters, leaving him unable to close the gap with McCain.
The Super Tuesday results should, therefore, be decisive. McCain will win most of the big states on either coast, while Romney and Huckabee fight it out in the heartland. Romney's problem is that evangelicals, the key to any strategy that seeks to capture the Republican nomination from the right, have simply not warmed to him. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is because the former Massachusetts governor has so blatantly flip-flopped on the issues they care about most. But let's also leave room for the likelihood that at least some of the Christian right's rejection of Romney stems from their discomfort with his Mormon faith. Either way, there isn't much room for a breakthrough at this stage, especially with Huckabee still hanging around.
We shouldn't forget that McCain's return to electoral prominence was accomplished on a shoestring budget. Mitt Romney has poured more money into this campaign than any other GOP candidate, maybe more than all of them combined. No matter: first he was whipped by the underfunded Huckabee in Iowa, and now he is being taken down by a second poverty-stricken campaign. McCain's victory in Florida combined with Giuliani's likely abandonment of his megalomaniacal dream ensures that the Arizona senator will now be able to raise some serious cash and compete on far more favorable terms. Romney thus loses his one big edge.
In short, it's over.
The good news for the Republicans is that they will be able, starting one week from today, to begin planning their general election strategy. How do they sell a 72 year old bar of soap to an electorate whose median age is in their forties, and most of whom have long since moved on to liquid anti-bacterial cleansers? Yeah, I know, I'm straining hard for the analogy here, but you get the idea. Unfair and ageist though it may be, it will be difficult to frame a septuagenarian pillar of the Washington political establishment as an agent of change. But at least the party has several months now to roll out McCain 2.0.
The bad news is that the presumptive nominee remains poorly situated to take on the Democrats. I mentioned this a couple of posts back, but it bears repeating. The problem with running as an Iraq War enthusiast is that you're in a bit of a no-win situation. If the Surge remains "successful", the War will continue to decline as a key issue in the presidential election. Should the situation in the Middle East suddenly deteriorate, however, McCain will inherit the mantle of that failed policy. Barring the intervention of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil, McCain will have a difficult time turning 2008 into yet another referendum on the War on Terror.
What does that leave him with? Not much, really. He will likely position himself, with some justification, as a bipartisan healer, someone who can reach across party lines after eight years of unceasing conflict. The difficulty with such a position, of course, is that either Democratic candidate will have a ready response. If Barack Obama is the nominee, McCain's calls for unity will be trumped by a much more inspiring advocate of the same principle. If Hillary Clinton gets the Democrats' nod, McCain will likely be drawn into a knockdown, drag out fight that will blunt any message of reconciliation.
As it is shaping up, the 2008 election will be about the economy, an issue the Republicans have largely been able to avoid since the Twin Towers fell. In his effort to win the GOP nomination, McCain has already painted himself into the typical Republican corner of trickle-down economics. Somehow, the senator must give voters some hope that he has at least an idea or two that George W. Bush hasn't already run into the dirt. If McCain has that idea, he has yet to propose it. But at least he now has several months to come up with one.
Finally, John McCain has so far been given a free pass on issues of character and integrity. That will now change. An electorate whose memory may not go back to the disco era is about to be reintroduced to the Keating Five scandal. I've talked about this before, so I won't belabor the point now, but it's pretty tawdry and it at least hints at the sort of corruption that finished off Rudy Giuliani as a serious candidate (minus the girlfriend). Perhaps voters will decide that several years in the Hanoi Hilton trump every subsequent flaw in a man's life. Regardless, we are about to find out.
For my money, then, the big winner in Florida yesterday was the Democratic Party. Let's be clear, though: any party that can entrust Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi with positions of power is perfectly capable of embracing defeat and failure even under the best of circumstances. But after yesterday's results, the Democrats' task just became a little easier.