<!--:es-->McCain’s path to victory
A Republican can win the White House, but first he needs an opponent<!--:-->

McCain’s path to victory A Republican can win the White House, but first he needs an opponent

WASHINGTON – It is April of 2008, a time when the Republican brand is at an all-time low.

And yet somehow, some way, John McCain is hanging in there. He is proving to be perhaps the only electable Republican in the country, short of Colin Powell or the ineligible Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Conservatives may not be thrilled with what a McCain presidency means, but if social conservatives care about the makeup of the House and Senate, as well state legislatures and the courts, then they should rally around McCain. They know better than most the importance of controlling the legislative and judicial branches to achieve long-term influence.

With McCain representing the Republican brand, even if he were to lose the race he should be able to save a few Senate seats (say 2-3) and a handful of House seats (perhaps 10). The latter could keep the Democrats majority below 250, a reachable number for the GOP in 2010.

But this isn’t meant to be just a simple lesson in how McCain can cover the spread. This is about looking at his path to victories.

The first thing McCain needs is for the Democrats to find a nominee. There’s a lot of bad conventional wisdom percolating that this drawn out fight is good for McCain. It isn’t… at least not yet.

There may be a point where it is good for McCain, say if the fight actually goes all the way to Denver, but short of that, he needs an opponent, badly.

Why? A few reasons, not the least of which is finding out where he stands with the voting public.

Currently polls show McCain either narrowly ahead or even with both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It is impressive considering how poorly the GOP, and specifically the president, are viewed by the public.

But it is a faux lead. If the de facto Democratic nominee is clear within the next 4-6 weeks, that person will see a poll bounce. And according to GOP pollster Steve Lombardo, it could be one heck of a bounce, like post-convention. He anticipates the Democratic candidate will move up 10 points once the primary race is over.

That will be a jolting set of numbers for the McCain camp to absorb. They ought to be prepping the media now, because if they wait for the inevitable overreaction of the pundit class, the bounce will take on more importance.

The initial bounce will set the polling numbers – the floor and ceiling – for the Democrats, who clearly have the generic advantage this cycle. Those parameters will dictate the morale within the GOP base.

If McCain’s is hanging in, behind by 10 or so points, then it is clear he will have a shot. If the bounce pushes the Democratic nominee to as much as a 15 point lead, it may be very demoralizing to the GOP. The sooner McCain can absorb this inevitable negative poll news, the longer he has to recover.