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Luckiest Man in the Race By: Fred Barnes
The Weekly Standard | Monday, March 24, 2008


John McCain is one lucky fellow. Of course you can make your own luck, as the saying goes. That's what McCain did with great courage to survive five-and-a-half years at the Hanoi Hilton. And he made his own luck again by advocating a surge of troops in Iraq that later proved to be successful.

In winning the Republican presidential nomination, however, McCain has mostly been just plain lucky, no thanks to his own fortitude or foresight. Conservatives inadvertently aided him by failing to line up behind a single rival. Mike Huckabee ruined Mitt Romney's strategy by beating him in Iowa. And Rudy Giuliani helped by pulling out of New Hampshire and fading in Florida, allowing McCain to sneak ahead and win primaries in both states.

Now Democrats are boosting McCain's chances of winning the presidency by prolonging the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination. "They are eating their own," says Dick Morris, the onetime adviser to the Clintons. The result, for the moment anyway, is that McCain is inching ahead in polls matching him against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

So long as Clinton stays in the race, the bitter divide among Democrats will widen--to McCain's advantage. And since Clinton still has a chance of winning the nomination, she's bound to continue her campaign at least through the Pennsylvania primary on April 22 and the Indiana and North Carolina primaries on May 6--and probably until the verdict of Democratic super-delegates becomes clear sometime this summer.

No matter who ultimately wins the nomination, the prospects for electing a Democratic president this fall will have declined. And through no machinations of his own, McCain's chances of winning will have improved. There's a name for that happenstance: luck.

For McCain, the best may be yet to come. If Clinton manages a come-from-behind victory over Obama, that could produce the dream election for McCain, one in which the Democratic party fails to unify behind its presidential candidate. Given the eagerness of Democrats to capture the White House after eight Bush years, that may seem farfetched. It's not. It's a real possibility.

What if Obama prevails? He'll have been weakened by having had the "kitchen sink" thrown at him by the Clinton forces. With no significant ideological differences between Clinton and Obama, they've focused on his personal shortcomings: inexperience, habit of saying one thing while believing the opposite, unimpressive Senate record, lack of appeal to white working class and Hispanic voters.

The Clinton attacks have begun to transform the popular image of Obama from that of an inspirational leader above the grubby fray of party politics to that of a normal politician. This should largely spare McCain from criticizing Obama on personal grounds and free him to concentrate on Obama's leftwing political views.

Three scenarios are possible in the Democratic race. The most likely--and the one that helps McCain the least--is that the primaries end with Obama leading in both delegates and popular voters, prompting the super-delegates to tilt his way. Thus he wins the nomination, and the party unites behind him.

The second scenario is Clinton's favorite. Her best chance of defeating Obama is to surpass him in the popular vote, then declare herself the true choice of Democratic voters despite trailing Obama in delegates. She has practically no prospect of overtaking him in delegates in the closing primaries. He currently leads by roughly 130 delegates.

For Clinton, winning the popular vote won't be easy. Obama picked up 100,000 more votes than Clinton in the most recent contest, the Mississippi primary, and his lead is now 700,000. But there are enough big primaries left that it's achievable, all the more so if Michigan and Florida schedule do-over primaries.

Obama's response is preordained: The primary campaign is about winning delegates, and I won the most. Those are the rules. Should the super-delegates side with Clinton, the entire Obama movement--and especially blacks--would feel cheated. Indeed, they would have been cheated. The likelihood of a party split would be significant.

Scenario number three is similar to the first in that Obama wins the most delegates and votes. But rather than concede, Clinton contends that, since she's won most of the final 10 or 12 primaries (assuming this is the case), she's the real favorite of Democratic voters. Besides, she'll say, Obama can't win the big states and who knows what will emerge once he's been fully frisked by the media, and (assuming no do-overs) that she won in Michigan and Florida. In other words, all the bad things you've heard before from Clinton central. And then there's the Reverend Wright business.

Calling this a desperate and party-shattering tactic by the Clinton forces would be putting it mildly. Are they really capable of it? Maybe not. But if they pulled it off, and Clinton swiped the nomination from Obama, the consequence is not hard to figure out. It's President McCain.

McCain shouldn't count on that big a gift from Democrats. Luck can only take you so far. There's a saying in baseball that it's better to be lucky than good. Presidential campaigns operate a bit differently. To win, a candidate has to be lucky and good.


Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.


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