It hasn't been fun to be a frontrunner in this year's spate of presidential debates. (Three GOP forums in six days? And we thought "CSI" could use some new plotlines.)
But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., looking strong in South Carolina, was enjoying himself Thursday night in Myrtle Beach -- and the reason for his smile is one big factor that suggests he could (unlike all of those around him) keep that title for good.
The crosscurrents and mini-battles in this jam-packed period in the cycle left McCain largely unscathed. Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., shrugged off any signs of slumber and went on the attack -- against former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., his biggest threat in South Carolina. Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., apparently knows that he needs to take down McCain (if not in Florida, then before then) but delivered only glancing blows.
The only candidate who sought to engage McCain was former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., who needs Michigan to stay in the race. But Romney suffered the worst fate of all on stage: No longer soaring above the GOP field, he got the Ron Paul treatment -- he was ignored. Even when the topic turned to immigration -- McCain's softest spot -- the Arizona senator seemed in control of his message; he'd heard all of Romney's lines before.
"Largely untouched after 90 minutes, John McCain left the stage here Thursday night with the same designation he had upon arrival: frontrunner," Politico's Jonathan Martin writes. "No candidate not named 'Mitt Romney' aggressively went after the ascendant McCain, who leads now in polls taken in both Michigan and South Carolina. And with Romney apparently not airing negative ads in Michigan, it appears that McCain, whose vulnerabilities in a GOP primary are well documented, now could go into the next two pivotal primary states largely untouched by his intra-party rivals." http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0108/7838.html
Maybe it was weariness -- the candidates did look debated out. Maybe it was friendliness -- three of his rival candidates would almost certainly be supporting McCain if they weren't running themselves. More likely, it was the candidates being realistic -- taking down McCain won't get them anywhere, not with the jumble of primaries leaving each of them with different (and increasingly difficult) paths to the nomination.
"Two things worked in McCain's favor: the content of the questions asked by the Fox News Channel moderators and the unwillingness of anyone other than former governor Mitt Romney (Mass.) to take a shot at McCain," Washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza writes. "Even the five minutes (or so) spent discussing illegal immigration -- a weak spot for McCain -- ended as well as possible for the Arizona senator."
And this intriguing line, from Jim Carlton of The Wall Street Journal: "[Arnold] Schwarzenegger could come out soon in support of Mr. McCain, says a person familiar with the governor's thinking."
On the Democratic side, the post-New Hampshire hangover was interrupted by an endorsement coup: Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was the surprise guest at a rally for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., in Charleston, S.C.
And a bigger South Carolina endorsement could be on deck for Obama: Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., perhaps the biggest powerbroker in his state's Democratic Party, and certainly the state's most politically influential African-American voice.