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Moreover, McCain, being from a border state and having championed immigration reform, stands as the only Republican who could go toe-to-toe with either Democrat in the battle for the Hispanic vote, which was key to Bush’s reelection in 2004 and on which 2008 may turn. “With any other Republican, you’re looking at a potential collapse for the party among Hispanics,” says Simon Rosenberg, the head of the Democratic advocacy group NDN. “But McCain would make the electoral map a lot tougher for Democrats.”

Yet McCain’s stance on immigration is a good place to start in applying some skepticism to the theory that he is on the march to the nomination. This was the issue that caused him to lose so much altitude last summer, and it still puts him starkly at odds with the GOP-primary electorate. And, of course, it’s not the only one. There’s taxes: Only McCain and Thompson have refused to sign a pledge not to raise them. There’s global warming: McCain insists that it’s not a fantasy dreamed up by Al Gore. And then there’s McCain-Feingold, the mention of which still makes blood boil on the right. The Republican Establishment may be willing to overlook these apostasies and focus on electability. That the rank-and-file will do the same is far less certain.

Further complicating McCain’s situation is the Huckabee phenomenon. The best pure political performer in the Republican field, the former Arkansas governor could do surprisingly well in Michigan, where his admixture of aw-shucks Christianism and pseudo Main Street economics may appeal mightily to, respectively, the Evangelicals and conservative Catholics in the western part of the state and to the fabled Reagan Democrats in places such as Macomb County. And the showdown between Huckabee and McCain in South Carolina will be a close-run thing, with the Arizonan fighting off not only Pastor Huck’s Christian soldiers but the demon-memories of his immolation there eight years ago.

If McCain does win both Michigan and South Carolina, the nomination will almost certainly be his. But if he doesn’t, he may well end up in a steel-cage death match with our former mayor. Reports from the trail of the demise of Giuliani have been exaggerated—though not by much. The day before the New Hampshire primary, I went to see him at a town-hall meeting in Merrimack; the crowd was tiny, sleepy, and Giuliani’s performance gave new meaning to the term “phoning it in.” In the end, despite having held more events in New Hampshire than any Republican save Romney, he managed to secure just 2,000 more votes than Ron Paul.

In Florida, however, Giuliani is running balls-out, aware that it could be his last stand. Here you have a state where money matters more than skill at retail politicking. And Giuliani has used his financial advantage to build an organization that McCain cannot hope to match. (McCain, for example, has no serious absentee-ballot program in Florida, whereas Giuliani’s campaign expects to rack up thousands of votes before Election Day.) The party’s economic-conservative wing is rallying around his recent promise to propose, on his first day in the Oval, the biggest tax cut in history. And Giuliani may be able to harvest the support of a blue-haired brigade of New York retirees residing in the Sunshine State.

A Giuliani victory in Florida would, of course, keep the Republican race alive until Super-Duper Tuesday, February 5. And then who knows what would happen? As McCain’s dreadful, halting victory speech in New Hampshire proved, he is not the most TV-friendly candidate of the lot—and February 5 will be an air war almost exclusively. The former Republican senator Rick Santorum told the Times the other day, “I don’t see how we don’t come down to a convention that is going to decide this thing.” In a normal election year, this kind of talk would be rightly dismissed as ludicrous, fantastical. In a normal year, McCain would cruise to the GOP nomination; it is, after all, his turn. But 2008 is anything but a normal year—as the past two weeks have demonstrated in spades, and as McCain knows better than anyone.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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