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Measuring the Obstacles

The more I think about the contest for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, the more uncertain I am about how Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will fare. However, I continue to be confident that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani won't last long if he actually enters the race.

My hunch is that I am more likely to win the Tour de France next year than Giuliani is to win the GOP presidential nomination. Don't get me wrong: He might well be the only person in this country who could get on the ballot as an independent in all 50 states, raise enough money to compete effectively, and perhaps even win the presidency.

Yet having attended the past six Republican national conventions and having gotten acquainted with countless GOP delegates, I find it exceedingly unlikely that the Republican Party will nominate a candidate who is "pro-choice," pro-gun control, and pro-gay rights.

McCain's problems are different. Either of two potential deal-breakers could upend his candidacy: the war in Iraq, and the age/ health issue. No politician short of President Bush has more ownership of the war than McCain.

Plenty of other White House contenders voted like McCain to authorize the use of force in Iraq, but the rest haven't dug in their heels as much. Nor have any of them supported the troop surge as enthusiastically as he, and virtually all of them have put some distance between themselves and the war. McCain, however, has only distanced himself from Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The problems that McCain's age and health could cause his campaign are visible in poll results, which suggest voters are reluctant to elect someone over 70 to the presidency. McCain turned 70 last August and has had a tougher life than most of the rest of us, enduring several bouts of skin cancer and more than five years of torture in a POW camp.

Over the next year and a half, reporters will be watching McCain for any sign of exhaustion. That's a problem for him, because he will be on a grueling campaign treadmill that would wear out most people half his age.

Either his age or his health could easily cost McCain the nomination or the general election. But, just as easily, voters could treat him as an exception, given his exceptional history. Other analysts might hasten to add that many conservatives and party-establishment types are uncomfortable with McCain's maverick style and reputation as a moderate.

However, I think that McCain's vulnerability in those areas is substantially reduced by the presence on the national stage of more-genuine mavericks such as Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and real moderates such as Giuliani.

When Romney emerged as a possible contender for the GOP nomination, I wondered whether his Mormonism might become a problem for him, because evangelical Christians have such a loud voice in the party. To be sure, some evangelicals do have theological concerns about Romney; some even totally oppose the idea of a Mormon president.

I sense, though, that Romney's faith will turn out to be less of a problem than I and many other analysts first thought. Early polling suggests that those voters most skeptical about Romney's faith tend to be Democrats -- particularly African-Americans. The skepticism of Republicans seems less profound.

Perhaps more problematic for Romney is his metamorphosis from a William Weld-style liberal Massachusetts Republican when he entered state politics 13 years ago to a considerably more conservative variety today. And that's not just on abortion and gay rights. Romney has offered explanations for his transformation. But will they hold up for long if more statements and videos from the 1990s surface?

For both McCain and Romney, the biggest hurdle may be convincing their party's conservative base that nothing disqualifies them. Giuliani ought to realize that's one hurdle he could never clear.

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