Internal GOP polling shows John McCain leading both of his potential rivals and enjoying a healthy advantage among independents. However–and this is a big however–GOP consultants do not expect this lead to withstand a post-nomination bump in the numbers of whomever the Democrats nominate.
The report suggests the GOP consultants are pleased to see McCain running ahead in a mythical “generic Republican vs. generic Democrat” race. But that’s consultant-think: he has to come out ahead of his real opponent. Poll-wonks are convinced that McCain’s advantage lies in his atypical GOP profile and his personal characteristics: even Democratic polling reveals that McCain’s greatest strength is his reputation as “a man of integrity.”
But herein lies a trap for the McCain team: the temptation to run on biography alone. Biographical campaigns did not treat Bob Dole or John Kerry well. And it seems foolhardy to say “We’ll take the biography; let the Democrats take the issues.” The danger with that is that Americans will end up voting for the candidate speaking to their issues and concerns. (It may also overlook the lesson of Rudy Giuliani’s campaign: sky high early polling numbers for a national hero can melt away overnight.)
Moreover, such a tactic may misinterpret why McCain is ahead, even preliminarily, and why his public approval ratings are high. McCain enraged the Right but endeared himself to others during his career not because of his war record but because of the stands he took on issues. By combining traditional Republican virtues (e.g. spending restraint) with decidedly unconventional positions (e.g. campaign reform, immigration reform and global warming) he carved out an identity entirely apart from his war record. To now revert to a mushy, issue-less appeal would risk discarding that carefully-constructed advantage.
But the race has not yet begun, an opponent has not yet been selected, and the chance for the McCain team to make the race about something still remains. Or they could just re-run the Dole campaign and hope for the best.