||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Stuart Rothenberg: Can Democrats and independents nominate John McCain?
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, buoyed by a narrow but important win in the Michigan Republican primary, is now in marginally worse shape in his bid for the GOP presidential nomination than he was immediately after he won the New Hampshire Republican primary three weeks ago.
That's because, for the second primary in a row, the Arizona Republican lost a majority of the GOP vote in a Republican presidential primary. McCain eked out a win over Gov. George W. Bush of Texas on Tuesday because he earned enough support from Michigan Democrats and Independents.
According to exit polls, McCain won just 26 percent of Republicans in South Carolina and only 25 percent of self-defined Republicans in Michigan. Even in New Hampshire, Bush won a larger percentage of self-described Republicans than did McCain, 42 percent to 37 percent.
Can Democrats and independents really nominate the Republican candidate for president? It's unlikely.
McCain has plenty of "open" GOP primaries (where both Independents and Democrats can vote) coming up, including two next week (Virginia and Washington) and five -- Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Vermont and Washington -- on March 7. Four other states that week have "semi-open" primaries, which allow independents, but not Democrats, to vote in the Republican race.
McCain's considerable appeal to independents gives him opportunities in all those states, and his victory in Michigan, however narrow, should boost the candidate's spirits and generate additional enthusiasm among his supporters.
In addition, McCain may do quite well in two states with closed primaries, New York and Connecticut, where his brand of more moderate Republicanism should find a receptive audience.
But the Arizona senator will have to find a way to carry Republicans if he is going to be nominated by his party.
In all of the March 7 Republican contests (except for an open GOP caucus in Minnesota), Democrats also have primaries. That means Democrats will likely "stay home" rather than vote in the GOP contest. McCain may do well in New England and Maryland, but he'll have a tougher time in three mid-sized to large states: Georgia, Missouri and Ohio.
On March 14, Bush will have a considerable advantage in three closed primaries -- in Florida, Louisiana and Oklahoma -- as well as in Mississippi and Texas, which have open primaries.
The longer McCain loses Republican primary voters, the easier it will be for Bush to rally Republicans against the perceived threats of "outsiders" out to hijack the Republican nomination.
It's absolutely critical for McCain to change his message to appeal to Republicans, and particularly to conservative Republicans. He won just 29 percent of conservatives in Michigan and 26 percent of conservatives in South Carolina. McCain needs to win those voters to win the GOP nomination, but also to have a united party backing him enthusiastically if he turns out to be his party's nominee.
McCain has a number of options. He could, as he started to do in his victory speech following Michigan, emphasize aspects of his ideology that might resonate with Republicans, or he could hammer away at his "electability" in the fall. It certainly would be wise for him to stop beating up on the GOP "establishment."
McCain might also direct more of his fire against Vice President Al Gore, since that would tend to establish his GOP and conservative credentials.
But whatever McCain decides, he shouldn't see his win in Michigan only as an unambiguous affirmation of his strength. It's as much a warning of his weakness.