The Washington Times

For the first time, a poll shows John McCain ahead of George W. Bush in New Hampshire, a clear boost for the most serious challenger to the Texas governor for the GOP nomination. But it would be no less a mistake to overestimate its significance than to deny that it constitutes proof of the Arizona senator’s political viability.

Mr. McCain’s main role in this campaign so far has been to be available. Mr. Bush long ago established himself as the favorite of the party’s leaders, from pro-choice big donors to Tom DeLay. But there was, and always is, a chance of a stumble. It might be political -some sort of unspeakable gaffe. It might be personal, something arising from the past sufficiently large to overwhelm the candidate. It might even be physical. Pete Wilson lost his voice just when he needed it in 1995; and who knows what might have happened had Mr. Bush’s brush with a garbage truck while jogging landed him in the hospital for a couple months?

Mr. McCain seems to be enjoying himself campaigning. But note what he is not doing, namely, going after the front-runner hammer and tongs. Instead, Mr. McCain is mainly talking about the things that made him the man he is, and on the issues, about campaign finance reform – his favorite cause, but one upon which he disagrees with most Republicans.

Obviously, the biography is compelling. The tireless focus on campaign finance reform is interesting for less obvious reasons. First, and most remote, in the event Mr. McCain ends up the nominee, he will have the benefit in the general election of an unassailable reputation for independent thinking. That could be a boon for any GOP nominee, who is sure to face a Democratic campaign that will attempt to portray the Republican as a tool of the party’s special interests, including the extreme right wing. Second, and more important, the issue is popular even as, oddly enough, it makes Mr. McCain no new enemies. Those Republicans who will never forgive Mr. McCain for his stand on this issue are already lost to him (unless, perchance, he is the nominee, in which case everyone will forgive him). But that’s a fairly elite crowd, not a mass movement even among GOP primary voters.

Third, and most important of all, talking about campaign finance reform to the exclusion of other issues has the effect of, well, excluding other issues – which is to say, of deliberately not drawing a contrast between the senator’s views on issues and the Texas governor’s views on issues. Directly and even indirectly, Mr. McCain is avoiding attacks on Mr. Bush. Well, now what? What to do, now that he has pulled slightly ahead in New Hampshire? Well, here’s the political challenge. After the New Hampshire primary Feb. 1 comes Delaware Feb. 5, then South Carolina Feb. 19, Michigan and Arizona Feb. 22, and Virginia and Washington state Feb. 29. Then comes the big one, Super Tuesday, March 7, with primaries in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Popular Republican governors in Michigan and Virginia are among Mr. Bush’s strongest supporters, and they are expected to squelch any bad news emerging from South Carolina (where Mr. McCain is now betting heavily) and Washington state (where a statewide poll in early November showed the Bush lead among likely voters within the margin of error). If he is really going to emerge, Mr. McCain needs to do more than come close in South Carolina. He needs to win there and in Washington, and he needs to run surprisingly well in Michigan and Virginia. That’s the kind of performance it will take to shake up the national polls in time for March 7.

Can Mr. McCain do it? Well, the obstacles are formidable. Start with a Bush campaign that, because it has refused public funds and is therefore not subject to spending limits, can pour money at will into New Hampshire. If Mr. McCain fails there, he has no plausible route to the nomination. And more to the point, it is very difficult to see how Mr. McCain breaks through without moving more sharply onto the attack against Mr. Bush. If Mr. McCain is serious about unseating the front-runner, he is going to have to dislodge Mr. Bush personally; no one else in the race can do it for him. The Bush campaign, as a whole, is making no serious mistakes; the destruction of the campaign would entail the destruction of the candidate.

Unless, of course, Mr. McCain just wants to remain available – for the nomination in an emergency, or for the No. 2 slot on the ticket, or for a Cabinet position, or for high-profile diplomatic assignments. In which case, he will draw few contrasts and no blood. Such a decision could be either a product of his conclusion that he can’t win (a strong possibility) or a failure of nerve (if Mr. Bush is truly vulnerable). We’ll know in January whether Mr. McCain is simply available or really willing to try to crash Mr. Bush’s party.