Sunday, March 16, 2008

Should McCain Fret About Bush — and About Disappearing?

By Stuart Rothenberg

No sooner had Arizona Sen. John McCain won enough delegates to claim the Republican presidential nomination than some talking heads began to assert that this was bad news for him.

The logic of these observers was simple. First, because the GOP race is now over, McCain will largely disappear from the news, which will instead focus on the Democratic contest between Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

Second, some said, as the certain Republican nominee, McCain would not be able to avoid being embraced by unpopular President Bush.

The idea that meeting with Bush and receiving his endorsement would be damaging for McCain doesn’t even deserve to be taken seriously.

Everyone knows the president is broadly unpopular and that McCain doesn’t want the 2008 election to be a referendum on Bush. And after the first day of the Republican National Convention in early September, you aren’t likely to see Bush anywhere near McCain. Between now and then, you aren’t going to see the two Republicans, arm-in-arm, barnstorming across the country.

But it’s no secret that McCain and the president are both Republicans, and regardless of whether Bush endorsed McCain, the Arizonan surely will be hurt by the president’s weak standing among voters as well as his support for the president’s surge policy in Iraq.

On the other hand, while Bush’s support among Republicans is far from ideal, many Americans (and most Republicans) still approve of the job he has done, and he continues to be an important party fundraiser. In addition, Bush certainly is an asset for McCain as the Senator tries to reach out to skeptical conservatives.

Snubbing Bush would have brought McCain even greater problems from Republicans. Indeed, the quick Bush endorsement means McCain can now move on without having to deal with questions about his relationship with the president.

The suggestion that McCain is damaged because he now has enough delegates to assure his nomination and therefore will be less newsworthy is worth more discussion, since at first it may seem both counterintuitive and smart.

The premise that some of McCain’s media attention will dry up surely is correct, but the idea that this is a big problem for him borders on being silly.

Yes, McCain won’t receive the same attention over the next few weeks that the two Democratic contenders will, but that’s not a problem for the inevitable Republican nominee. He won’t disappear or be forgotten.

The 2008 presidential election has been stunningly interesting and entertaining. McCain’s road to the nomination, in particular, has been remarkable, from frontrunner to also-ran to comeback kid to nominee. The idea that even a couple of months as the second political story of the day will damage McCain’s chances ignores the political calendar and elevates what happened yesterday — any yesterday — to a ridiculous level of importance.

The general election won’t take place until November, eight months away. By the time November rolls around, voters will see plenty of McCain, and his Democratic opponent.

There will be the announcement of a running mate, the Republican National Convention and McCain’s acceptance speech. There will be debates and the suffocating media coverage that will precede them and follow them. And there will be interviews, controversies and arguments galore.

In other words, there will be more coverage of McCain than he needs for voters to form an opinion of him. McCain may well lose in November, but it won’t be because he won his nomination before the Democratic race was decided, and it certainly won’t be because his media coverage dimmed in March and April.

But there is another set of reasons why McCain should actually benefit from a relatively brief hiatus in media coverage.

The Arizona Republican now needs time to talk to and with Republicans who haven’t been enthusiastic about him. He needs time to raise campaign cash. And he doesn’t need national political reporters hovering over him while he does both.

McCain also needs time to retool on the economy.

He clearly is comfortable discussing the war in Iraq and the war on terror, but he still has a ways to go before he can talk as articulately and confidently about the economic issues of the day. He certainly could use a few weeks to focus on domestic issues, which will be a major part of the ’08 campaign.

Finally, though I expect he would deny it vociferously, McCain almost certainly could use a bit of a rest right now. It’s been a grueling year for him, and while he continues to show energy and enthusiasm, all candidates, especially those in their 70s, could use time to relax a bit and recharge their batteries.

It’s still a long time until November. McCain, like his eventual Democratic opponent, will have more than his share of media coverage, both good and bad. He’ll have opportunities and campaign crises. While the national media treats each day as if it were the crucial day of the campaign (and any given day certainly could be crucial), most days aren’t.

McCain could well benefit from the continued Democratic contests. That, of course, depends on how the nomination fight develops. But what’s certain is that McCain’s victory in the GOP race is good news for him, not bad.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 10, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.