Sen. Henry (The Great Compromiser) Clay was all set to get the Whig nomination to challenge President Martin Van Buren. Thurlow Weed, a New York political boss in 1840, came up with a strategy to undermine Clay's wide support among Whigs. His sorrowful message: "Clay can't win." It worked, and the Whigs went on to defeat the sitting president with Benjamin Harrison and not Henry Clay.
Ever since, practical politicians have used "electability" as the touchstone. And throughout last year, George W. Bush's nomination had the aura of inevitability because polls showed him trouncing Al Gore, his likely opponent in November.
Now that Sen. John McCain crushed Bush by a historic margin in the Republican primary in New Hampshire, we see the end of the inevitability of the former front-runner's nomination. A coronation at the GOP Philadelphia convention has become both evitable and exorable.
In the Republican primary on Feb. 19 in South Carolina, independent voters will again be allowed to cast ballots for McCain; that's the same system that made his landslide possible in New Hampshire. This time, because Carolina Democrats won't have a primary that day, McCain won't have to compete with Bill Bradley for swing voters. He'll get the great majority of them.
The question is whether the maverick McCain will also get enough of South Carolina's regular Republicans to overcome Bush's 20-point lead. The GOP leadership there, now panicking at voter interest in campaign-finance reform, is going all out to build another South Carolina "fire wall" to rescue their establishment from the horror of a McCain upset.
How can McCain attract to his side those conservative Republican voters who so dearly want a winner in the fall that they are willing to swallow the springtime swing rightward of a natural moderate like Bush? That's where Thurlow Weed's "can't win" strategy comes in.
Focus not on the nomination, goes this argument to the GOP rank and file, but on the general election. Who is more likely to defeat the Democratic opposition, Bush or McCain?
If the Democratic nominee is the underdog Bradley, the New Hampshire results provide the answer: independents given a choice between Bradley and McCain overwhelmingly preferred McCain.
If Democrats choose Al Gore to be their nominee, which Republican is most likely to defeat him? South Carolina's answer to that question of presumed electability (no matter if the answer is ultimately right or wrong) should determine who will be the Republican standard-bearer.
McCain's backers must make the case that only their man can defeat Gore. Their job is to convince primary voters that Bush _ no matter how propped up by his beloved parents and blessed regularly by the evangelist Pat Robertson _ "can't win."
Why? Least important reason first: Bush's impossibly high poll ratings of last year against the Clinton-tainted Gore (on which much of his nomination inevitability was based) have eroded radically. National polls no longer show Bush to be an easy winner over Gore, and his ratings will narrow further in time.
More important, nobody knows if Bush can coolly turn aside vilification _ from charges of financial favoritism to smears about drug and alcohol abuse _ sure to come at him from the Democratic camp. Piously cluck-clucking about "negative campaigning," as we have recently seen with Bradley, is no effective defense. (McCain can take whatever mud is heaved his way; there is no shortcoming to which he has not already cheerfully confessed.)
Third, Bush, if nominated, would have to hastily reinvent himself as a moderate, after having moved tax-cuttingly right. But McCain is solidly positioned to take the center, which would ensure his victory in November while saving the House for the GOP.
The most convincing reason: a post-Bradley Gore would savage Bush in debate, out-detailing and out-cornballing him at will, whereas McCain's depth of experience and personality would put the crusher on Gore's candidacy. Tacit admission of McCain's debating superiority comes from Bush himself, who refuses to go one-on-one with his Republican rival.
Of course, McCain cannot personally put forward a "Bush can't win" argument. That calls for the likes of a modern Thurlow Weed.
+ William Safire is a New York Times columnist. +
New York Times News Service