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The Formidable McCain

John McCain
John McCain (Charles Dharapak - AP)
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By David S. Broder
Thursday, February 7, 2008

The continuing drama of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination should not diminish what John McCain has accomplished on the Republican side of this campaign.

The senator from Arizona still has to finish off the challenges from Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, but after Tuesday's victories in such key states as California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Missouri, and with a commanding lead in delegates, the question is when, not if, he will secure the nomination.

Were it not for the suspense in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the saga of McCain's eight-month journey from the brink of political bankruptcy last summer to his current supremacy would be the most riveting narrative of the year.

What is more, he has emerged -- despite all the negatives of the George W. Bush legacy -- as a serious possibility to win the presidency in November.

On Super Tuesday, I called a number of knowledgeable Republicans, Democrats and neutral observers to check their appraisals of McCain as a general-election candidate. I found him consolidating support in his own party and being treated with great respect by Democrats.

Arizona's Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, who sees her home-state senator at close range, said, "He is not to be underestimated." An Obama supporter, Napolitano said that McCain is "a gifted campaigner with a great life story. When everything seemed to go wrong for him last year, I told people, 'Never write John McCain off.' "

Former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt, neutral since John Edwards withdrew from the race, told me that he thought McCain would be "very tough" competition. Don Fowler, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and a Clinton supporter, who saw McCain campaign successfully in his state of South Carolina, said, "He is the best possible candidate for the Republicans by any measure I can see."

There were some dissents. Gail Kaufman, a savvy California Democrat, said that McCain's policy positions, including his antiabortion stance, would cripple him in that state.

But I was struck by the warming tone toward McCain from conservative Republicans I reached in Wisconsin, Ohio and Louisiana, despite the barrage of criticism from Rush Limbaugh and Co.

And Newt Gingrich told me, "We disagree on some issues, but I'd rather fight him in the White House than either of those Democrats. He has come back because of one thing -- his courage. As a populist, I love it."

That message is underlined by the most recent Post-ABC News poll. It showed McCain in a statistical tie with either Democrat, leading Clinton by 49 percent to 46 percent and trailing Obama by a similar margin.

In either scenario, women break for the Democratic candidate. McCain leads Clinton by 13 points among men, but he only runs even with Obama. Party lines are sharp, and the battle for independents would be close. Currently, independents give McCain a 12-point lead over Clinton but favor Obama by 6 points over the Republican.

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