Forget about the issues, it's time to pick a winner

Then there were three would-be presidents: John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

A case could be made that Mitt Romney might still have a chance of unseating McCain for a shot at the White House, but at this point it might take something on the order of a bolt of lightning to make that happen. Romney knows this, which explains the reports that he has stopped spending money (most of it his own) on ads in key Super Tuesday states. He may not become president, but at least he has the smarts to pull the plug on a bad investment.

It was surprising that the Republicans were able to pick a candidate so quickly, after what looked like a train wreck of a nominating process. The conservative wing of the party kept latching onto whomever they thought was their savior of the month, from Fred Thompson to Mike Huckabee to Romney. But they all had warts too big to ignore.

So they seem to have settled on McCain, despite the fact that conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay think he's a disaster for the party.

After seven-plus years of ideological worship at the throne of George W. Bush, a majority of Republicans have suddenly come down with a chronic case of pragmatism, and their man is John McCain. They realize he is the only possible solution to holding onto the White House.

I was a McCain fan at one time. I was hoping he would make it out of the Republican primaries in 2000 to give an alternative to Bush and Al Gore. His Straight-Talk Express has run through a few ditches since then, as his ambition to be president overtakes his judgment, flip-flopping on issues like torture and tax cuts. But as Limbaugh will tell you, he's not a hard-line conservative.

I doubt McCain could win a straight-up contest against a strong conservative in a Republican-only primary. But after the disaster of the Bush years and a field of deeply flawed candidates, they know their only shot at winning in November is to have McCain the Moderate at the top of the ticket.

The fact that McCain is winning despite being heavily outspent by both Romney and Rudy Giuliani should say something as well.

You can almost feel the pain of conservatives' clenched teeth as they vote for the guy they spent the last decade trying to undermine and ignore. This is the guy who cut off the Republicans' campaign fundraising advantage, and who wants to give amnesty to illegal immigrants. He even openly toyed with becoming John Kerry's running mate in 2004, after his staff spread the rumor that he was interested.

Yet McCain is the only candidate on the GOP side who could possibly pull enough independents to win, and only if things go just right.

And for Republicans, "just right" has a name: Hillary Clinton.

Republicans want to run against Hillary so much, I'm surprised they haven't started running campaign ads for her.

Democrats have been a little slow to pick up on the fact that the one thing that could possibly reunite a fractured Republican party would be to give them someone to hate. Despite all of their divisions, there is one thing Republicans can agree on: They do not want Hillary to be president.

Democrats are starting to notice. The movement in the polls is going toward Obama and away from Clinton, as is the movement of money, with Obama raising a staggering $32 million in January alone. Compare this to the $29 million McCain raised during the entire year of 2007.

After all the Democrats' posturing about experience vs. change, all of that falls to the wayside if the winner of the nomination can't defeat a splintered Republican party led by the least likely of candidates.

One thing I have always hated about the primary system for picking presidential nominees is that they tend to select the most partisan candidates. Core groups usually dominate the primaries and caucuses, which makes it very hard for more independent-minded candidates to make any headway.

But for this election, that dynamic seems to have changed. McCain is definitely not the candidate core Republicans wanted, and Obama may yet pull ahead of the Clinton machine.

With the race so tight between Obama and Clinton, all policy issues will fade away, replaced by the debate over which candidate can appeal to independents and beat McCain. And I don't see how Hillary can win that debate.

• Kirk Caraway is editor of and also writes a blog on national issues at


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