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McCain leads fractured Republicans into Tuesday showdown

4 February 2008

WASHINGTON – John McCain heads into Tuesday’s mega-primary contest with the label of frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination firmly emblazoned on his chest.

It’s been a topsy-turvy battle to say the least for the long-time Arizona senator – his presidential campaign was pronounced dead by most political pundits in mid-2007.

But for conservatives, McCain’s resurgence is a dilemma for the party currently led by an unpopular President George W Bush: is it more important that your next presidential candidate be electable, or that he adheres to the values your party holds most dear?

Voters from more than 20 states will pick their preferred Democratic and Republican nominees for president Tuesday, and McCain could well have an unassailable lead in the nomination battle by the end of so-called Super Tuesday.

Polls on average give McCain, 71, a nearly 12-point lead nationally over his chief rival for the Republican nomination, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and he also tops polls in most key state races on the day. Polls taken between Wednesday and Friday gave McCain an even more commanding lead as he celebrated his most sweeping week on the campaign trail yet.

On Tuesday he topped the Republican field in Florida, the last of the major individual state-by-state primaries that had been piling up since the beginning of January.

In the following days he picked up two major endorsements: former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani – who ended his own presidential bid and immediately tipped McCain – and California’s Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Both hailed McCain, a prisoner of war during Vietnam, for his national security, defence and foreign policy credentials, which have been central to his resurgence in the race.

But they are also supporters of the moderate stances that have so riled social – and even fiscal – conservatives. Both favour a woman’s right to an abortion – although McCain himself opposes the practice – and have joined McCain in arguing for allowing illegal immigrants residing in the US to stay in the country – both hot-button topics for conservatives.

Schwarzenegger also likes McCain’s support of a nationwide, mandatory cap-and-trade programme to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions blamed for global warming, which has been attacked by fiscal conservatives and which Romney blasted in a debate Wednesday for damaging the economy.

All those issues could help McCain in a general election. An average of polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com shows McCain narrowly beating Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a head-to-head race. Romney is beaten handily by both prospective Democratic candidates.

At 71, McCain is bidding to become the country’s oldest president, and his long-time label as a maverick within the Republican party has not been forgotten. Leading conservative commentators have strongly opposed McCain’s run, and Romney, 60, has sought to fill the void by portraying McCain as a "liberal."

Yet the anti-McCain vote is also fractured. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher and the favourite of many Christian conservatives, has run a strong third and could even win a few southern state contests Tuesday.

Huckabee’s refusal to exit the race has frustrated the hopes of Romney, a former Massachusetts governor with a vast personal fortune from his time in the private sector.

McCain on the other hand will benefit Tuesday from the departure of Giuliani, a hero for his leadership after the 11 September 2001 attacks who had been running on a similar platform of foreign policy issues – defending the United States from terrorist attacks and taking the fight to terrorists abroad.

But McCain’s sudden resurgence has had as much to do with issues turning in his favour, as well as with more personal qualities – exit polls have consistently given him a strong edge in that elusive quality of "authenticity."

As a vocal proponent of the Iraq war even at the height of its unpopularity, McCain’s campaign ran out of money and steam in mid- 2007. His rise in the polls since has mirrored the declining violence in Iraq over the last few months.

But Romney has recently seen an opening in the economic uncertainty and recession fears plaguing the United States. In a testy debate Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Library in California, he repeatedly criticised McCain for a lack of understanding of the economy and touted his own history of turning around failing enterprises.

Ron Reagan, son of former president Ronald Reagan, the icon of US conservatism, told CNN that his father had a knack for bringing the party together in a way the current candidates lacked.

"You’ve got Mike Huckabee who can speak to the evangelicals, you have Mitt Romney who speaks to Wall Street, you’ve got John McCain who speaks to the military folks," he said. "My father … brought all these people together."

[Copyright dpa 2008]

Subject: Super Tuesday, US primaries