January 19, 2008 [LINK / comment]

McCain wins South Carolina

Ah, sweet revenge! It was eight years ago that John McCain, the Democrats' favorite Republican, got savaged at the hands of George W. Bush's brass-knuckled campaigners, losing the South Carolina primary and with it his hopes for nomination. Tonight he won in that GOP bellwether state, edging Mike Huckabee, 33% to 30%. These days, winning in South Carolina is almost a prerequisite for getting the Republican nomination. (Quite a contrast from 1861! ) Chris Cilizza at the Washington Post noted that "Independents made up a smaller share of the electorate in today's vote than they did in 2000," which should allay any suspicions that McCain is just a "RINO." After what Bush did to him in 2000, it's quite commandable that he has remained a loyal party stalwart. He may be shaky on immigration and other domestic issues, but he has paid he political dues, and is (like Rudy Giuliani) rock solid on national security issues. That is what counts most for me. As the economy heads into recession, however, voters will be more likely to make their choices on the basis of which candidates promise them the most quick cash. (Hence the stupid "stimulus" package that everyone in Washington is blathering about...)

My favorite, Fred Thompson, managed a third-place finish, just barely staying in the race for the time being. If Romney had beat him in South Carolina, he would have been toast. Fred will need a minor miracle on Super Tuesday, something like a gaffe by one of his rivals. His down-home, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is speeches are music to my ears, but these days not many voters are attracted to candidates who are actually candid. (!) Thompson is a mediocre campaigner, and thus doesn't do very well in primary elections. He does, however, command the respect of policy-making elites and a wide range of party members (the "base" and the moderates), and he is probably the second choice of many people. In a caucus situation, where minor candidates are weeded out and their supporters switch to the bigger names, he would fare much better, I think.

A lot of pundits are delighted that this is one of the most interesting primary races in memory, but if you think about it, it's a bit silly that anyone would marvel at the fact that the contest is still still wide open with seven months to go until the conventions. Whoopee, there is actually a bit of suspense!

I think a bigger lesson from Nevada (where Hillary won the popular vote) and South Carolina today is that the establishment in both parties is lining up with the candidates they feel are most electable and least troublesome. Obama and Huckabee may fire up their respective bases, and both of them make sincere, compelling arguments designed to attract moderate voters, but neither one of them is a reliable national figure. These days, the lack of experience can cost one dearly, as even a small, innocuous gaffe can wreck a campaign. Party leaders need someone they can depend on, and if you ask me, there's nothing wrong with that. Call me nostalgic, but even with all the cronyism and corruption, I still say this country was better off when party leaders chose their presidential nominees in smoke-filled rooms.