They are not quite there yet, but Republicans are headed down a path that should lead to the nomination of their strongest general election candidate. Sen. John McCain continued his miraculous comeback with a strong performance on Tuesday that cemented his status as the front-runner and should be instructive for the remaining Republican doubters - and for Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who remain virtually deadlocked in a historic battle for the Democratic nomination.
McCain is winning because of his authenticity and independence, not because of his position papers. He is demonstrating it is possible to win Republican primaries without parroting the party's hard line on immigration or turning a blind eye to global warming. Along with governors such as Florida's Charlie Crist, who joined McCain on stage Tuesday night, he is nudging the Republican Party in a more moderate direction with a mix of personal style and fiscal conservatism that de-emphasizes divisive social issues.
The hysterical reactions to McCain's ascent from Republican conservatives on talk radio, cable television and the blogosphere are shortsighted and overblown. Nobody expects Ann Coulter to vote for Hillary Clinton. But former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's primary wins Tuesday in the Bible Belt reaffirm the determination of many social conservatives who would rather sacrifice control of the White House than bend on ideology.
While Huckabee will not win the nomination, at least the charismatic former Baptist preacher is genuine. The same cannot be said of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the onetime front-runner whose changing positions and personal investment of $35-million will not win him the nomination. This is not the year for calculated prepackaging.
McCain has made some inroads with conservatives in South Carolina and elsewhere, and he will have to mend more fences. Despite his high-profile support of comprehensive immigration reform, his voting record is solidly conservative. But as McCain marches toward the nomination and tries to unite a fractured Republican Party, he should remember what got him this far with broad support from moderate Republicans and independents: independence, candor and a determination to challenge the status quo in Washington.
Democrats are looking for many of the same qualities, but Super Tuesday produced no clarity in a tight race that could last for weeks. Clinton held her ground in critical states such as New York, California and Massachusetts. Yet Obama's momentum is undeniable, and the delegate counts remain close. A protracted battle for the nomination between candidates who differ more on style than issues generates excitement - and potential pitfalls.
While Democrats are generally turning out in greater numbers than Republicans, Clinton and Obama cannot afford an ugly fight that divides the party by age, race or gender. The rhetoric veered into that quagmire a few weeks ago, and the candidates have to sharpen their points without losing the high ground again.
Second, this is a battle that should be decided by the primary voters. A nomination ultimately decided by so-called super delegates - elected officials and party activists who can vote as they choose - would send the wrong message to an energized electorate. Such a strategy probably would favor Clinton, but the waves of enthusiastic young voters captivated by Obama would disappear by November.
With McCain, Republicans are poised to nominate the GOP candidate best positioned to answer the voters' demand for change. The challenge for Democrats is to make a similarly inspired choice who will match up best against McCain.