McCain slowly building the GOP coalition -- and more

While the two Democrats race to the Left in their interminable primary campaign, John McCain has quietly begun convincing Republicans that had felt disaffected from his campaign to rally to his banner. Even more significantly, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton may be doing McCain’s work for him. McCain has begun attracting what looks a lot like the old Reagan coalition as the Democrats appear ready to run the most liberal candidate since George McGovern against him:

Republicans are no longer underdogs in the race for the White House. To pull that off, John McCain has attracted disgruntled GOP voters, independents and even some moderate Democrats who shunned his party last fall.

Partly thanks to an increasingly likable image, the Republican presidential candidate has pulled even with the two Democrats still brawling for their party’s nomination, according to an Associated Press-Yahoo news poll released Thursday. Just five months ago — before either party had winnowed its field — the survey showed people preferred sending an unnamed Democrat over a Republican to the White House by 13 percentage points. …

By tracking the same group of roughly 2,000 people throughout the campaign, the AP-Yahoo poll can gauge how individual views are evolving. What’s clear is that some Republican-leaning voters who backed Bush in 2004 but lost enthusiasm for him are returning to the GOP fold _ along with a smaller but significant number of Democrats who have come to dislike their party’s two contenders.

The findings of the survey, conducted by Knowledge Networks, provide a preview of one of this fall’s battlegrounds. Though some unhappy Republicans will doubtless stay with McCain, both groups are teeming with centrist swing voters who will be targeted by both parties.

That last sentence has already been proven wrong. The Democrats stopped targeting centrist voters months ago. When John Edwards exited the race, Hillary dropped her appeals to the center and took up where Edwards left off.  The policy differences between Hillary and Obama have all but disappeared, with both candidates offering up populism by the pound as they campaign through the Rust Belt for the final lap of the primaries.

That leaves a lot of field for McCain, who has a much clearer claim on centrists and independents than either Democrat.  He has a long history of working towards the center and an actual legislative record that shows it, something neither Democrat can claim.  McCain has taken personal risks and earned the animosity of his own party — and for good reasons at times — in doing so.  Neither of the Democrats has even voted outside their party line more than a slight percentage, let alone authored significant bills on controversial topics.  Obama voted with his party 97% of the time, after discounting the 39% of the votes he missed in this session of Congress.  Clinton also gets 97%.  McCain: 88%, a number that might surprise Republicans.

That explains why McCain has gained ground in the center, but why on the Right?  Conservatives have begun to consider the disaster of allowing either Obama or Hillary into the White House.  In February, some floated the notion of losing as a means of winning, by having a Carter-style debacle as a new generation’s lesson on electing Democrats.  However, as both Democrats have run more and more to the populist Left, conservatives have started considering the effect on the judiciary and on the economy that either Democrat will have, especially if the Democrats hold Congress.   Obama and Hillary turn out to be the most effective argument for McCain on the Right.

Last night’s debate will only magnify these trends.  As long as Obama and Hillary try to out-Edwards each other on the campaign trail, McCain will look like the voice of reason and rationality.