McCain a maverick no more

The good news for Sen. John McCain is that he suddenly looks pretty good to a Republican establishment eager to have somebody/anybody other than Mike Huckabee as its presidential standard bearer. The bad news is that this may not be a great year to be the establishment choice.

In a campaign already punctuated by twists, this is one of the more ironic. McCain started out as an anti-establishment maverick in 2000, bucking party orthodoxy on campaign-finance reform and trying to stop establishment favorite George W. Bush. A year ago much of that same establishment embraced him as the best post-Bush bet""then left him for dead last summer amid voter disapproval of his stands on Iraq and immigration and a meltdown of his campaign staff.

Now many party regulars, worried about Huckabee's inexperience in national security, frightened by his anti-Wall Street message, and fearful that his close identification with evangelicals will turn off mainstream voters, are in an anybody-but-Huckabee mood. And they have a new fondness for McCain.

Perhaps the best sign of that came over the weekend, when McCain's campaign released a list of "100 prominent Reagan administration alumni" who have endorsed him for president. The list was a who's who of the party's Reagan-era establishment, including three former secretaries of state""George Shultz, Alexander Haig and Lawrence Eagleburger.

In fact, some savvy Republicans now think that the nomination suddenly has become McCain's to lose. Here's why:

In this analysis, Huckabee eventually should sink of his own weight, provided a good alternative is available. His Iowa victory figures to give him no particular bump in New Hampshire, where the evangelical support that helped him in Iowa actually may hurt him with the state's more secular rank and file. After that, he won't win the full support of evangelicals in Michigan's Jan. 15 primary; some will back Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who hails from Michigan.

Then, the thinking goes, Huckabee will be competitive in South Carolina's Jan. 19 primary, but he will fade afterward because of a lack of money and organization.

If that's the case, the question is: Who is the best alternative?

It is, of course, an exaggeration to think there is some formal "establishment" of powerful Republicans who meet in a back room to anoint a candidate. The establishment is more of a mind-set""though Republican movers and shakers do have a history of coalescing behind one candidate early in the process.

One way to gauge the thinking of the Republican establishment is to look at where the big players have put money on the table. On that score, the message is clear: Until now the establishment has been betting big on Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, less so on McCain and not at all on Huckabee.

In nearly every major business group""hedge funds and private equity, commercial banks, insurance, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals and the securities industry""executives gave most heavily to Romney and Giuliani among Republican contenders through the first three quarters of the year, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

In each case, McCain ranked third, and Huckabee was a footnote. In the case of hedge funds, the center reports no dollars for Huckabee.

Romney has been the favorite of many in the establishment because he is smart and conveys a carefully framed, mainstream-conservative message. The problem is that he is more respected than beloved among party regulars, many of whom came his way because they saw him as a competent winner. If his loss in Iowa is followed by a loss in New Hampshire, the "winner" label will be in peril, along with his support.

In the case of Giuliani, the questions are whether he is too much the anti-Huckabee""that is, too far from the party's religious wing on the issues of abortion and gay rights""and whether his strategy of virtually opting out of Iowa and New Hampshire and holding his fire until later in the primary schedule keeps him on the sidelines while the establishment looks elsewhere.

That leaves McCain. Pakistan has driven national-security concerns to the fore, playing to one of his strengths. In a year of dissatisfaction with the status quo, he benefits from having bucked the status quo on pork-barrel spending.

He now leads most polls in New Hampshire and, if he wins there, could well follow up by winning South Carolina and emerging as the main challenger to Giuliani in the 20 states holding primaries and caucuses Feb. 5.

He still has plenty of problems. Republican pollster Frank Luntz notes that he is hurt by the perception that he is soft on illegal immigration and insufficiently devoted to tax cuts, both of which Luntz calls "potent" issues. His staunch support for the war in Iraq, which looks better with the security situation improving there, could yet be a difficulty in a general election if things turn sour there again.

His more ironic problem is that he has done best in this campaign when he lost establishment support and began campaigning again as a maverick loner. In a year when "change" is the magic word for voters, could being the establishment favorite actually hurt?

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