Don't Count Sen. McCain Out Of The Race Yet

Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review.

hide captionRich Lowry, the editor of the National Review.

J.J. Ignotz/Courtesy National Review

When John McCain says he has the front-running Barack Obama right where he wants him, it's a mix of bravado and hopefulness. But perhaps it's also an accurate appraisal of his own ability to persevere through looming disaster.

He jumped from a plane to emerge unscathed from the inferno on the USS Forrestal; he survived 5 1/2 years in captivity in Vietnam; he salvaged his reputation after the political hell of the Keating Five scandal; he trounced the establishment candidate, George W. Bush, in the New Hampshire primary in 2000; he came back to win his party's nomination this year after his campaign teetered on the edge of collapse last summer.

Even the most hardened Democrat has to appreciate the man's pluck.

I myself have mixed feelings about McCain. It's come as a surprise to his former admirers in the press and among Democrats that he's prickly and temperamental. Uh, hello? Those of us who have been on the other side of McCain in intramural conservative battles always knew this about him. This isn't a "new McCain" — it's the same old McCain the press once over-romanticized.

But there's another enduring McCain quality — and that's courage. He has been willing to root out corruption in his own party; he has bucked his own party's leadership; he has endured the slings and arrows of conservative talk radio; and he staked his political future — really and truly — on his advocacy of the surge in Iraq.

In our imaginations, we always yearn for political candidates who demonstrate bravery and independence, who put conscience above expediency and don't take partisan marching orders. Among current national figures, John McCain — for all his flaws — might be the closet approximation to this ideal.

It's been forgotten because he is running against an inspiring liberal Democrat who is beloved by the media and whose election would be a historic event. So every McCain attack is elevated to a scurrilous breach of political ethics. Sure, his campaign has been negative, but how else is he supposed to beat a vastly better-funded candidate in a hostile media environment when his party's image is in the pits?

McCain's campaign has done what it can to stay alive, and there he is, still in contention, punching away with his "I'll fight for you" theme promising to stick up for the Joe the Plumbers of the world. Is a 5- to 6-point lead hard to overcome in two weeks? Yes. Is his electoral path narrowing to the disappearing point? No doubt about it. Does he have Obama where he wants him? Doubtful, but maybe — just maybe — he does.

Rich Lowry is the editor of the National Review.

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