Is Huckabee Good for McCain or for Democrats?

Given his druthers, Senator John McCain would love to have former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee pack it in. From Senator McCain’s perspective the GOP nomination process is over and he won it. That’s a valid conclusion given the math. Senator McCain would have a hard time not capturing the 1,191 delegates needed for the GOP nomination in the next few weeks. From this point of view, Governor Huckabee’s continued campaigning appears more hopeless and egotistical than quixotic.

Yet staying in the race makes lots of sense from where Governor Huckabee stands. As the only alternative left for the anti-McCain forces, the Governor is likely to poll strongly in the remaining contests. He’ll be able to spin these results as evidence he’s more than just a niche candidate from the religious right. Support from a broader segment of the party will allow him to claim the conservative mantle in the future. Considering that if the Democrats win the White House in the Republican campaign for 2012 begins on November 5th, that’s a welcome result for the Governor. Why should he quit any time soon?

But is that really bad news for Senator McCain?

Not if he plays his cards right. The temptation for Senator McCain and his advisers will be to turn to the right, to try to undercut Governor Huckabee’s support among conservatives. That would be a waste of resources and foolish.

First, it wouldn’t work. Senator McCain can’t move to the right of Governor Huckabee. There’s simply too little room there. Second, the effort to right flank the Governor would undercut the core of Senator McCain’s political strength: his reputation for integrity and straight talk. Senator McCain’s standing in the polls plummeted over the summer, a period in which he was spending more time pandering to the right wing of his party than promoting those virtues. He’s going to get the nomination whether he panders or not, so he may as well demonstrate to independents that while he may be a conservative, he’s a maverick conservative they can trust.

This is why Governor Huckabee as the anti-McCain is good news for the Senator. Governor Huckabee scares many independents and Democrats. He’s a nice guy, the most personable of all the Republican candidates who ran this year. But he campaigns as a Christian leader in a country that still values the separation of church and state. He is too embedded in the rightous right to be easily embraced by independent minded voters.

Which is why, incidentally, he’d make an awful vice presidential pick. Senator McCain can choose among plenty thoughtful conservatives when selecting a running mate. His goal should be to use that decision to strengthen his appeal to swing voters. Selecting Governor Huckabee would do the opposite. If Senator McCain is to have any chance of winning in November, it will be from reaching out to the vast center where most voters dwell.

It’s those centrist voters that Senator McCain will be battling for whether the Democratic nominee is Senator Hillary Clinton or Senator Barack Obama. The Democrats will try to pigeon hole Senator McCain as a conservative who pretends to talk straight, but doesn’t. One of Senator Obama’s best lines in the Los Angeles debate was describing Senator McCain’s change of heart on the Bush tax cuts as “the wheels falling off the Straight Talk Express.” The more issues that quip applies to, the better for the Democrats.

The Democrats will also benefit if conservatives make their effort to stop Senator McCain a crusade (holy or otherwise). The eventual defeat of Governor Huckabee could then be perceived by conservatives as a personal rebuke by the party. Rebuked, they may sit out the general election. (This is less likely if Senator Clinton is the nominee, but that’s a topic for a later post). Sitting out the general election could put into play several states that last time around went for President George Bush.

This means Governor Huckabee needs to play his hand carefully, too. He needs to promote his views without denigrating those held by Senator McCain. He needs to offer himself as a conservative alternative, without demeaning his opponent. Otherwise, instead of emerging from the 2008 campaign as a strong conservative leader, he’ll find himself blamed for handing the White House to the Democrats.

Governor Huckabee seems to understand this dynamic and his personality and political demeanor both lend themselves to a high road candidacy. Whether his supporters will follow his lead, however, is the big unknown.

If Senator McCain uses the continued candidacy of Governor Huckabee to strengthen his image as a maverick and a straight talker, the remaining Republican contests can strengthen his chances in the general election. On the other hand, if he succumbs to temptation and tries to out right the Governor, Democrats will be the beneficiary of the Huckabee campaign.

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