Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008 | Yes, Republicans still can win the White House.

Few would have thought so after the ’06 elections or even last year when Republicans were still praying to be saved by a movie actor, Fred Thompson, who hadn’t even entered the race. True, Bush is still vastly unpopular, but the long stalemate in Iraq has numbed the moral outrage of some Republicans and allowed for the resurrection of John McCain, the great war champion pronounced dead only six months ago.

McCain, following the Hara Kari of Virginia’s George (“macaca”) Allen two years ago, was the only Republican with a real chance to succeed Bush — if only the war would go away. Rudy Giuliani destroyed his candidacy by preferring to be anointed rather than actually campaign, and as for Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, even in the unlikely chance either won the nomination, neither could win the presidency.

For Democrats, the question all along was who had the best chance to take back the White House after the Bush disaster. The three leading candidates were all acceptable; none was having his credentials challenged as conservatives were pounding away on McCain. John Edwards was more liberal, Hillary Clinton more articulate, Barack Obama more inspiring, but they were all recognized as strong.

McCain sewed up the GOP nomination Tuesday, and Republicans like Rush Limbaugh and James Dobson who don’t like him will either hold their nose and support him or serve the cause of the Democrats. Except on immigration (on which he has changed his tune), McCain gets high marks on conservative issues such as taxes, guns, wars and abortion. Limbaugh’s rants never made any political sense

It was Iraq that nearly did McCain in. Just as he believed we could have won in Vietnam with more troops, he holds that view on Iraq as well, and Bush’s dispatch of 21,000 more troops last year saved him. It has, however, done nothing to end the war. Last year was the deadliest for Americans since the invasion, and 2008 is off to a bad start. Given what we know, the idea that more U.S. troops can guarantee “victory” in any colonial war these days seems to me daft.

Voters see the troop surge as militarily effective, but majorities still believe the war was a mistake and support a prompt withdrawal. That makes McCain vulnerable to a strong anti-war candidate.

Obama’s climb back to near parity with Clinton Tuesday shows the evolution in Democratic thinking since Edwards dropped out and McCain became the GOP frontrunner. Obama won more states than Clinton Tuesday and cut her 30-point lead in California of a few months ago in half. The more Obama campaigned, the better he did, and his failure to win more in California and the West was in large part attributable to the Latino vote, which I will come to, and to absentee voting, where his late surge couldn’t help. If he turns out to be the nominee, he will do better with Latinos.

The Democratic field this year was unusually strong, and though any of the three frontrunners likely would have beaten most of the Republicans, McCain is a different animal. Despite his very conservative record on fundamentals, his independent streak appeals to independents, and he could well win in November if the Democrats fail to offer someone with equal appeal to the center.

That would appear to be Obama. A strong opponent of Bush’s war, Obama matches up better against McCain than Clinton. As former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer put it Tuesday night, “We pray every night to run against Hillary Clinton.”

Obama’s strength is not just opposition to the war. Following the demeaning Bush years, his message of change and unity resonates, especially among younger voters, among whom he beat Clinton almost everywhere. The Kennedy endorsements (including by the wife of our own Republican governor) were hardly a surprise. The sharp mind, easy self-confidence, ready wit and calls for change remind of both John and Robert Kennedy. Like them, Obama has an effect on people. Voters see in him a chance to unite a nation that polls say has been more divided under Bush than since the Civil War.

Clinton showed Tuesday she still is the frontrunner. She won California and New York and they were close in delegates. She is a strong person and gave a great victory speech. But the argument that she uses against Obama — that he is green while she is experienced — cuts two ways. McCain is also experienced, and his war policy — indeed his entire Middle East policy — is the same as Bush-Cheney, which is a failure. When things are as bad as they are today, with polls showing vast majorities believing the nation headed in the wrong direction, there are worse things than a fresh start.

Some trends from Tuesday’s votes worth reflecting on:

  • McCain’s weakness across the Deep South will be a problem for him. Yes, Republicans are likely to prefer him to the Democrat in November, but their lack of enthusiasm will hurt. Democratic turnout everywhere was superior to GOP turnout, including in the Deep South (Georgia and South Carolina) and border states (Missouri and Tennessee), showing how much more Democrats liked their candidates than Republicans liked theirs.
  • Obama lost the Latino vote to Clinton by wide margins except in Illinois, his home state. In California, he lost it despite the endorsement of L.A.’s La Opinion, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in the nation. No question that there is a traditional hostility among blacks and Latinos he must fight to overcome.
  • Against McCain, Obama would have some advantages with Latinos. Since sponsoring a moderate immigration bill in the Senate, McCain has repudiated it in order to win the conservative vote. The flip flop will not help him with Latinos, especially if he picks Huckabee, who wants to build a border fence from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, as his running mate.
  • Obama’s problem with the white vote was less a question of race than of economic status. He lost the white lunch pail vote to Clinton. To beat her, he must find a way in the coming 24 Democratic Party primaries to reverse that tide.
  • Romney was the big loser Tuesday, showing that despite the personal money he poured into his campaigns, he could not win in the South or in the border states, where Republicans have to win. The only hope to stop McCain, and it is infinitesimal, would be for Romney or Huckabee to drop out, and evidence to this point is that they dislike each other too much for either to take that step.

Update: Mitt Romney announced Thursday that he was suspending his campaign to allow McCain to begin forming a campaign focused on the fight against whoever is his eventual Democratic rival.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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