McCain Playing Catch-Up As Support Ebbs
W$J fronts a new poll combined with analysis from John Harwood suggesting that John McCain’s bid for the Republican nomination is in serious trouble.
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows the Arizona senator trailing Rudy Giuliani by more than 20 percentage points — and encountering doubts in the party about his age and steadfast support for the Iraq war.
Mr. McCain’s support “is softening,” says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted the Journal/NBC survey with Republican counterpart Neil Newhouse. Republican voters “are window shopping,” Mr. Newhouse adds, and at this stage finding reasons to look past the familiar Mr. McCain toward the inspiring post-9/11 profile of the former New York City mayor. All told, 2008 is shaping up as the worst presidential year in three decades to be the candidate of the Republican establishment, the spot some in the party think Mr. McCain has assumed.
It is far different terrain than McCain advisers expected as they set out methodically in recent years to build a front-runner’s fortress of establishment endorsements, financial strength and organizational infrastructure in critical states. In a party that has traditionally respected hierarchy, the runner-up in the 2000 Republican primaries was pursuing the same strategy that worked for George W. Bush that year, Bob Dole in 1996, Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. President Gerald Ford’s near-loss in the 1976 primaries to Mr. Reagan was rare for a Republican front-runner.
Yet Mr. McCain has seen Mr. Giuliani race past him earlier than any of those Republicans faced serious challenge. In a two-way matchup of the best-known Republican contenders, Mr. Giuliani leads 55% to 34%; when also-ran candidates are included, Mr. Giuliani’s lead is 38%-24%, more than double his margin from a December 2006 Journal/NBC poll. The telephone survey of 1,007 adults, conducted March 2-5, carries a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
Disclosure: My wife works for Newhouse.
It is rather amusing that McCain is now running as the “establishment candidate,” after having worked so long to craft the “maverick” image. It’s especially ironic, considering that virtually no one in the Republican establishment actually seems to like McCain.
McCain’s team rightly points out that Giuliani’s numbers are inflated because the nominating electorate doesn’t yet know how liberal Giuliani is on key social issues and that McCain has strong support in early primary states. Still, McCain isn’t getting any younger, is unlikely to repair much of the damage he’s done over the years by his opportunistic attacks on Republican leaders, and is more tied to an unpopular war than any of his challengers.
I’m still not convinced that any of the Big Three (McCain, Giuliani, or Romney) will get the nomination, although I don’t know who would jump in an overtake them at this point. If I had to pick one of those guys, though, I’d say Giuliani is it. His post-9/11 rock star status has so far managed to trump his major social baggage. And he’s got George Will touting his tenure as mayor as the “eight years of most conservative governance in the 20th century.” He may soon become an unstoppable train.