McCain’s balancing act

John McCain and Republicans in general face the tricky problem of disentangling themselves from President Bush without appearing to disavow totally their leader of the last eight years.

There was a general sense of relief at the GOP’s convention in St. Paul when Hurricane Gustav caused Bush to postpone and vice-president Dick Cheney to cancel their scheduled primetime appearances. Perhaps less happy were Democrats who plan to campaign against McCain as " McSame," the third term of the Bush presidency. It is clearly a problem for McCain. A Washington Post/ABC poll showed 57 percent of voters expect McCain would keep the country on President Bush’s deeply unpopular course.

Now comes the effort to put distance between the candidate and the president. No one would think that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain’s 11th-hour choice for a running mate, would be a vice president in the Cheney mold. And when Gustav was threatening the Gulf coast, McCain packed up Palin and dashed off to the site of the hurricane, drawing an implicit contrast to Bush’s own lethargic response to Katrina three years ago. And it may be of note that the convention was more than two hours old before the first mention of President Bush and that was by first lady Laura.

There is a risk of ignoring a lame-duck president of the same party, as Al Gore found in 2000. Then-President Bill Clinton came with his own considerable baggage and spurning him irritated his loyal supporters. However awkward his 30 percent approval ratings may be, Bush retains a loyal core of activist GOP supporters and donors.

Bush is not McCain’s only problem.

Unlike Bush’s two elections, there are not enough Republicans to give McCain the White House, thanks to what the National Journal called the "dramatic erosion of the Republicans base since 2004." America’s national elections tend to be decided in the political middle, and to have a chance of winning, McCain will have to move to the political center in search of independents and disaffected Democrats.

But that’s a problem too. The delegates to the convention tend to be deeply conservative, perhaps more conservative than the GOP as a whole, and, it’s safe to say, McCain was not the first choice of most of them. He is suspected of the evils of political independence, bipartisanship and moderation. But of the social and political conservatives, Mike Huckabee’s campaign never caught fire and Mitt Romney, who might have been the actual favorite of this convention, dropped out after Super Tuesday.

To add to the equation, McCain was forced by conservative opposition to bypass his preferred choice of running mates, Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge. Either one would have likely provoked a damaging floor fight. Instead, he reached deep into right field for Palin, who has an appealing story and ideology, and satisfied the conservative base. But certain revelations this week — among them a pregnant unwed teenage daughter and an apparent vendetta against a former brother-in-law — have the delegates uneasily wondering how thoroughly she was vetted.

But McCain, as he showed last summer when his campaign had all but collapsed, has a warrior mentality and likely sees these obstacles as welcome challenges, even opportunities.