Starting Gate: McCain's Jump Start

Despite the occasional hand-wringing among Republican strategists and activists over the generally bleak political landscape facing them in November, there's a palpable sense of relief these days. They are of course thrilled with the extended and increasingly divisive Democratic battle and are no doubt rooting for a convention fight in late August. But they also should be pleasantly surprised with the candidate their party's process has produced.

Buyer's remorse could set in anytime between now and November but it's pretty clear that John McCain is about the best candidate the GOP could have chosen, at least in a purely political sense. Conservatives continue to grumble about ideology and deep suspicions about McCain but even they have to admit it would be hard to imagine any of their other primary choices lining up so well at the outset of their general election campaign.

For starters, McCain may be uniquely positioned to run against either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Against Obama, the likely matchup for the moment at least, McCain may have the wave of change to fight against but could Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani or Mike Huckabee pose the same threat to the Illinois senator among crucial independent voters that McCain does? Would any of them have the upper hand on Clinton on national security and experience? And could they attract the disgruntled supporters among the loser of the Democratic fight the way he has (according to this Gallup poll)?

Even more importantly in a quest for 270 Electoral Votes, McCain appears to be positioned to wage a campaign covering a much bigger map than Republicans have in recent cycles. As a westerner, he should be better able to fend off Democratic encroachments in states like Colorado and New Mexico and perhaps even eat into their west coast strongholds of Washington and Oregon. Maybe, just maybe, he could even make Democrats sweat a little bit in the holy grail of the Electoral College – California.

Republican strategists dream of McCain playing well even in some Democratic must-have states, like Michigan where he is a familiar figure and where Democratic fighting over the primary may hurt. Other states McCain might target are Minnesota (where the GOP convention will be), Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and even New Jersey. While Democrats dream of forcing the Republican party into a retreat toward the South and their do-or-die states such as Ohio and Missouri, McCain may force them to play as much defense as offense, something that would be a huge victory given the national landscape.

The signs are beginning to bubble for McCain, although it is much too early to call anything a trend in this race. According to the Real Clear Politics polling averages (which combines many different polls, including some not recognized or used by CBS News), McCain is off to a good start. He's leading Obama in Pennsylvania by an average of 2.2 percent and is ahead in all recent head-to-head matchups. In Ohio, where the state Republican Party has been decimated by scandal in recent years, McCain leads Obama by an average of 7 percent (but trails Clinton by .3 percent) and in Florida, he leads Obama by an average of 6.8 percent.

McCain faces many challenges in bringing still-cautious conservatives along with him and finding ways to begin neutralizing the enormous Democratic financial edge, not to mention developing an infrastructure and message for the fall campaign. But Republicans should be feeling better about their outlook – and their nominee – than they did just a few weeks ago.

Speakers Shouldn't Speak? Clinton supporters are none to pleased with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her recent statements urging the party's superdelegates to cast their votes with whichever candidate ends up with the most pledged delegates at the end of the primary process. Since that candidate is almost certain to be Obama, was it an endorsement by the Speaker? Some major Clinton fund-raisers fired off a letter to Pelosi yesterday expressing their displeasure.

"Super-delegates, like all delegates, have an obligation to make an informed, individual decision about whom to support and who would be the party's strongest nominee," reads the letter. "Both campaigns agree that at the end of the primary contests neither will have enough pledged delegates to secure the nomination. In that situation, super-delegates must look to not one criterion but to the full panoply of factors that will help them assess who will be the party's strongest nominee in the general election."

Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly responded to the letter in a statement: "Speaker Pelosi is confident that superdelegates will choose between Senators Clinton or Obama -- our two strong candidates -- before the convention in August. That choice will be based on many considerations, including respecting the decisions of millions of Americans who have voted in primaries and participated in caucuses. The Speaker believes it would do great harm to the Democratic Party if superdelegates are perceived to overturn the will of the voters. This has been her position throughout this primary season, regardless of who was ahead at any particular point in delegates or votes."

But was there an veiled threat in such a letter sent to the Speaker by a group of influential party fund-raisers? The Obama campaign saw it that way and released a statement of their own: "This letter is inappropriate and we hope the Clinton campaign will reject the insinuation contained in it. Regardless of the outcome of the nomination fight, Senator Obama will continue to urge his supporters to assist Speaker Pelosi in her efforts to maintain and build a working majority in the House of Representatives."

If Loving Him Is Wrong, Don't Want To Be Wright: Obama brought up the controversy about his former pastor and longtime fiend Jeremiah Wright yesterday at a rally in North Carolina when he was asked a question about religion. Despite the controversy, Obama was quick to bring up Wright's name. "This is somebody that was preaching three sermons at least a week for 30 years and it got boiled down ... into a half-minute
sound clip and just played it over and over and over again, partly because it spoke to some of the racial divisions we have in this country," Obama said. "There are misunderstandings on both sides. … We cannot solve the problems of America if every time somebody somewhere does something stupid, that everybody gets up in arms and forgets about the war in Iraq and we forget about the economy."

Around The Track

  • New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who abandoned his thoughts of launching an independent presidential bid last month, will attend Obama's economic speech today at Manhattan College. Bloomberg has said his endorsement is up for grabs for the nominee of either party but he has held at least one high-profile meeting with Obama this year. (Update: Bloomberg actually introduced Obama at the speech).
  • The Evans-Novak Political Report names former congressman and OMB chairman Rob Portman as the possible front-runner as John McCain's running mate. "He appears to have fewer negatives than any other possibility," the report notes (hat tip, Political Wire).
  • Bonnie Locchetta, a 44-year-old single mother from Rushville, Indiana won the fund-raising contest to have dinner with Obama after she donated $25 to his campaign. Locchetta tells the AP she has plenty of questions for the candidate. "I want to ask him what he plans to do to help people like me send their kids to college and help people like me to retire who have no savings and to help people like my mother who's struggling to afford her medication when she's also struggling to pay her housing and all her bills."
  • "All these guys that say bad things about any other campaign, they say, 'Should they resign?' My answer is no; they're repeating party line. They oughta stay right where they are. Let's just saddle up and have an argument. What's the matter with that? That's what America's about, right?" – Bill Clinton, on the comments of campaign supporters that have dominated the campaign in recent weeks.