Hard Choices

By Charlie Cook

February 28, 2006

When several thousand Republicans gather in Memphis for a joint meeting of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference and its Midwestern counterpart on March 9 to 12, they're likely to spend a great deal of time agonizing over -- or at least privately debating -- whom their party should nominate for president in 2008. The two front-runners are unpopular with large portions of the party faithful.

A Cook Political Report/RT Strategies national survey taken in December found that among Republicans and independents likely to vote in GOP presidential primaries or caucuses, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani tied for first place with 25 percent each. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came in next with 12 percent.

He was followed by five senators and five governors, each with 5 percent or less. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were excluded from the survey because they have ruled out 2008 White House bids.

Although few people would dispute that Giuliani improved the quality of life in New York City, that he showed real leadership in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and that he has charisma, very few Republican professionals expect their party to nominate someone who supports abortion rights, gun control, and gay rights.

Likewise, Democrats aren't likely to choose as their standard-bearer someone opposed to abortion rights, gun control, and gay rights. These ideological issues are deal-breakers for either party's base, and Giuliani does not pass the GOP's litmus tests.

What about McCain? His relentless advocacy of campaign finance legislation has certainly caused considerable teeth-gnashing among party regulars inside the Beltway. And in the hinterland, many Republicans complain that he is not a "team player." According to Congressional Quarterly statistics, McCain has voted with the GOP Senate majority more than 80 percent of the time and has backed President Bush at least 90 percent of the time when the administration has taken a strong position. That record suggests that McCain is a "real Republican" who should be acceptable to most within the party.

But National Journal's ratings show that McCain's voting record on economic issues was more conservative than just 49 percent of senators in 2003, 49 percent in 2004, and 52 percent in 2005. On social issues, he was more conservative than 59 percent in 2003, 55 percent in 2004, and 64 percent in 2005.

On foreign policy, he was more conservative than 54 percent in 2003, 49 percent in 2004, and 54 percent in 2005. By those yardsticks, McCain is slightly to the right of center, more liberal than most GOP senators but well positioned for a general election.

Among conservatives and GOP regulars, reservations about McCain have more to do with style and personality than substance. Republicans have long taken a dim view of mavericks. And it is not lost on conservatives that McCain has been the darling of the much-loathed mainstream media for the better part of a decade.

The truth is, McCain desperately needs Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to do very well as her party heads toward selecting its 2008 presidential nominee. McCain will have his best shot at winning the GOP nomination if his party becomes convinced that Clinton will be the Democratic nominee.

Faced with the possibility of a President Hillary Clinton, many GOP regulars, even those who loathe McCain, would think that he is the only Republican who could keep her out of the White House. Even so, some Republicans would rather lose the White House to a relatively moderate Democrat, such as Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, or Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, than nominate someone they don't trust.

If Clinton's nomination ends up looking less than inevitable or less than intimidating, Republicans might find it easy to turn down the maverick McCain.

By Charlie Cook

February 28, 2006