The Washington Times

What next for John McCain? Let’s start with an assumption – that he still wants to be president of the United States, and a given – that he currently has a problem with a number of Republicans, a hangover from the campaign he waged. His attack on Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell obviously hurts his long-term prospects with Christian conservatives. But it also constitutes a serious problem among certain elements of the party establishment, who wonder where a new majority coalition will come from.

It’s the latter group that constitutes the more serious problem for Mr. McCain. The establishment, in the person of George W. Bush, prevailed in the 2000 primary, and perforce, Mr. McCain was the anti-establishment candidate. But it is difficult, to put it mildly, to see how Mr. McCain captures the nomination of a party he is running against. Such things can happen when the establishment loses touch with the party rank and file, but that does not look like the condition of the GOP today.

So the question, then, is how Mr. McCain finds a way back. (Yes, this assumes he wants to find a way back; it’s a corollary of the assumption that he still wants to be president.)

Mr. McCain is 63 years old, which is not young. But he would be perfectly viable at 67 in 2004, and it is possible that he would be healthy and robust enough to run in 2008. Ronald Reagan was 73 when he was re-elected. Bob Dole was 73 when he ran in 1996.

Mr. McCain’s most direct route back into the party’s good graces would be as a vice presidential nominee this year. He has a certain claim to the nod. He won half a dozen primaries, after all. He is an obvious draw for some voters. (Would he take it? Of course – this is another corollary of the assumption that he wants to be president. As for the supposed bad blood between Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush, historically, we’ve seen worse.) There is a problem here, however – one exposed by the bipartisan Battleground 2000 poll released last week. Mr. McCain does indeed draw a number of voters to the GOP ticket, particularly in those swing suburban districts on which both parties rightly lavish so much attention. His problem, as Republican pollster Ed Goeas and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake discovered, is that he also costs the GOP votes among hard-core conservatives.

The net was a wash. In a head-to-head without mention of a vice presidential nominee, Mr. Bush led Mr. Gore 48-44. In a Bush-McCain vs. Gore-Bradley matchup, the result was 48-42.

It’s possible that hard-core conservatives might get over their reaction to Mr. McCain if he turned out to be an effective advocate for the ticket in the No. 2 slot. But whether or not the Bush team -which of course has no natural sympathy for Mr. McCain, but rather is looking coldly for the veep who best helps their man in November – will take such a benevolent view of Mr. McCain’s potential is an open question. Let’s just say that the campaign Mr. McCain waged didn’t help his vice presidential prospects with the Bush campaign, not out of anything so childish as hard feelings but because of the view of Mr. McCain that emerged from the primaries within the Republican base.

A vice presidential campaign is not, however, Mr. McCain’s only opportunity to ingratiate himself with the party. The fact is that Mr. McCain is a very serious political asset in some areas. In the 75 or so swing congressional districts, Mr. McCain’s presence at the side of a GOP candidate might prove to be very helpful. That’s an excellent way to build up a set of IOUs -from a useful group for Mr. McCain to cultivate. (Needless to say, this would also be the logical stomping grounds for him were he the vice presidential nominee.) He can do the same for House candidates in 2002. The least opportune scenario for Mr. McCain is Mr. Bush’s victory without Mr. McCain on the ticket. Mr. Bush’s pick, under those circumstances, would be well-positioned for the nomination in 2008 (less so, however, if Mr. Bush wins this year but loses in 2004).

If Mr. Bush stumbles this year, however, and Mr. McCain gets credit for saving the House – or preventing worse disaster – many Republicans will start looking to him for 2004. Whether the party establishment that rallied behind Mr. Bush currently likes the idea or not, Mr. McCain is a serious force in the GOP – assuming, that is, that he wants to be.