Why John McCain will win

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National Post, Thursday, January 24, 2008

There are two good reasons why John McCain is probably going to be the Republican nominee for president of the United States.

First, it is his turn. And in the Republican Party, it is nearly always someone's turn.

And second, he can make the Republicans competitive against either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, by vying with them for independent voters.

It was Ronald Reagan's turn for the nomination in 1980, after his narrow loss to Gerald Ford at the 1976 convention. It was the turn of the first George Bush in 1988, after biding his time for eight years as vice president. It was Bob Dole's turn in 1996, after losing out to Bush in the 1988 primaries. It wasn't really the turn of George W. Bush in 2000, except that he represented both the family dynasty and the party establishment.

It wasn't McCain's turn in 2000, when he rode his Straight Talk Express as the outsider running against Washington. Eight years ago, his insurgency came to a crashing halt in the South Carolina primary. Last Saturday, he won South Carolina by three points over Mike Huckabee, the populist preacher from Arkansas.

The importance of South Carolina is two-fold. It is the first test of the primary season in the south, a Republican regional bastion. And every Republican presidential nominee going back to Reagan has won in South Carolina first.

McCain, very much the maverick in 2000, has now emerged as the consensus establishment and moderate right-of-centre candidate in 2008. Where the two Bushes and Dole built a firewall in South Carolina to protect their front-runner status, McCain needed a breakthrough to prove he could finally win in the South. Last weekend, he got it, winning enough support in the cities along the coast to offset Huckabee's big advantage among fundamentalist Christian voters.

Already, also-rans are beginning to fall off the sideboards. When Fred Thompson entered the race last summer, he did so with high name recognition from his years in the Senate, and even more from his television and film acting roles. But Thompson's campaign was flat and lifeless almost from the beginning. Since the Iowa caucuses, his dispirited appearances have sug-gested someone who just wanted to lose and go home. And this week, he did, after finishing a bad third in South Carolina, which had been expected to be his springboard to the Super Tuesday states on Feb. 5. Ironically, Thompson probably siphoned just enough right-wing voters from Huckabee to provide McCain with his margin of victory.

When all is said and done, the Republican race will come down to McCain versus Mitt Romney, the billionaire former governor of Massachusetts, who has positioned himself ( somewhat dubiously) as the anti-establishment candidate, with his mantra that " Washington is broken."

But in beauty contest runoff polls against the two Democratic front-runners, Romney doesn't test nearly as well as McCain. In an average of all polls on the Real-ClearPolitics.com website, McCain beats Clinton by four points, 48.5 to 44.5, while edging Obama by 45.8 to 44.5.

Romney, on the other hand, would lose by large margins to either one of the Democrats. Clinton would beat him by 51-39, while Obama would run up an even bigger spread, 54-33, landslide numbers that aren't entirely realistic.

But they do point to two things. First, McCain would not only be competitive, he could even win as a fiscal conservative, and an advocate of the troop surge that has seen real success in Iraq. And second, Clinton is the more vulnerable of the two Democratic finalists, because she is a polarizing figure who would bring independents to McCain's side while bringing Republicans back to the party fold.

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