David Brooks appears to believe that John McCain is the best hope for the Republican Party in a presidential election. He's probably correct:
While various conservative poobahs threaten to move to Idaho if Huckabee or McCain gets the nomination, the silent majority of conservative voters seem to like these candidates. Huckabee has done very well among evangelical voters while loudly deviating from conservative economic orthodoxy. John McCain leads among Republicans nationally. He has a 71 percent favorable rating and a 23 percent unfavorable rating. He has a 63 percent favorability rating among Huckabee supporters, 66 percent favorability among Romney supporters and 81 percent favorability among supporters of Rudy Giuliani. These are much higher second choice ratings than any other candidate.Except.... First he has to win the nomination, and as Brooks concedes there are many within the party establishment who not only vehemently oppose McCain, they are actively savaging him. If McCain wins the Republican nomination, he will have to overcome the consequences of that internecine warfare. Many of the people who are currently warring against McCain will not get behind him in the general election, and those who do risk looking like clowns (although in some contexts that's probably not much of a change). Some of those critics will also have to open their wallets to support his campaign.
At the same time, "moderate, centrist" McCain will have to overcome the infamous "hug" photograph, his flip-flopping on the religious right, and... his willingness to commit to a century or more of "more of the same" in Iraq. If, as Senator Clinton believes, a McCain candidacy will turn on issues of national security, I think he has the wrong message.
McCain also has a senior Senator's problem - an enormous voting record which makes it pretty easy to map out where he stands on the issues - and where his votes have changed, or where his current promises are inconsistent with his voting record. Also, although this isn't his fault, McCain is looking rather peaked.
It was (and is) a mistake for the Republican Party to underestimate McCain (and overestimate the likes of Giuliani, Romney and Thompson). I agree with Brooks' suggestion that it would be a huge mistake for the Democratic Party to underestimate McCain (or, for that matter, to underestimate any Republican nominee). But I think that when the Democrats finally get down to defining a platform - one that is appealing to the public while departing substantially from the Republican candidate's platform - it will be much easier to do so against McCain than against any other leading candidate, and that could be a real advantage going into the election. They can also stress commonality on some of the issues that drive the Republican establishment crazy. So yes, McCain has a shot at winning, but if Brooks is putting him forward as the strongest Republican candidate things still look very promising for the Democratic Party.