WASHINGTON — John McCain claimed his prize Wednesday, but the Republican presidential nomination ain't what it might have been.
The Arizona senator has strengths heading into the general election, to be sure. He has a record of courage in war and achievement in politics. He appeals to moderates and independents. He's sewn up his party's nomination while the Democrats are still battling each other.
But he also has a long list of challenges:
- He's likely to be vastly outspent, but his fight to raise more cash could tarnish his image as a campaign-finance reformer.
"The environment and arithmetic are not very friendly for Republicans," said Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "He doesn't look weak. But he doesn't look particularly strong."
McCain's most daunting problem is money.
First, he's tangled in a dispute over whether he can skip public financing for the campaign until September — and avoid the spending limits that come with it.
McCain last year appeared to promise a bank that he'd take federal financing if necessary to pay back a loan.
He never took the public money, however. He raised enough on his own to compete and win the nomination, and he now wants to skip the whole federal financing question so he can raise and spend as much as he can.
The Federal Election Commission cannot rule on his request because it doesn't have a quorum. The Democratic-controlled Senate can keep blocking confirmation of President Bush's appointees to the commission, thus preventing it from approving McCain's plan. And the Democratic National Committee is suing to prevent McCain from getting out of his commitment to play by federal-financing rules.
McCain says he doesn't need the FEC's permission, but a protracted legal fight to raise more money might tarnish his image as a reformer fighting to curb the influence of money on politics.
Second, even if he's free to raise more money, he likely cannot keep up with either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in that department.
McCain raised about $24 million in January and February, not bad in a normal election year.
But Clinton raised $49 million, and Obama raised about $86 million.
"We've got a ways to go to catch up with them," McCain acknowledged.
His first hope to counter that is by raising and hoarding money while the Democrats spend theirs fighting each other.
Also, he'll count on the Republican National Committee — with President Bush as its star fundraiser — to raise enough cash to air ads for him on its own through summer. As the de facto nominee, he essentially takes control of the RNC.
McCain also still has a problem with his party's conservative base.
Conservative leaders such as James Dobson of the group Focus on the Family and Rush Limbaugh of talk radio have never liked him much. Rank-and-file conservatives didn't rally behind him through the primaries.
McCain got a momentary reprieve when he was the target of a critical story by The New York Times that was widely criticized, even by some liberals, as shoddy journalism at best and a smear at worst. Conservatives hate the newspaper and jumped to his defense.
A new poll out Tuesday from the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey found that Republicans believed him over the paper by a margin of 10-1, and conservatives sided with him by 5-1.
Yet a recent dustup with a conservative talk show host in Ohio turned a supporter into an enemy and rekindled fears that McCain can turn on his own side too readily for conservatives' taste.
The talk-show host, Bill Cunningham, was enlisted to warm up a crowd for a McCain appearance. He did just that, with a repeated reference to Obama that included Obama's middle name, Hussein.
McCain later disavowed the remarks. "I never met Mr. Cunningham," McCain said, "but I will make sure nothing like that ever happens again."
"He's still having trouble getting the conservative wing behind him," said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling Research, which does campaign polls for McClatchy and MSNBC. "The New York Times handed him a golden opportunity to build some sympathy with that group, then he threw Bill Cunningham under the bus and all the old wounds got reopened."
McCain's support among conservatives Tuesday was far weaker than his support among moderates, even though he entered the day with the nomination all but locked up and only a token opponent in former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. In Ohio, for example, he won moderates by a 47-point margin and conservatives by a 20-point margin, according to exit polls.
In Texas he won moderates by 42 points; conservatives by only six.
His challenge is to find a way to tack to the right without losing the center.
"He's got to thread a needle," Coker said. "He needs the conservative vote, but running as a conservative too much probably hurts his ability to attract the independents he needs to win the swing states. He's got a foot in each camp and has to balance it."
Ultimately, McCain's prospects likely depend on what Americans think about Iraq come November.
As an early advocate of sending more troops, he's closely tied to the success or failure of that strategy.
Said Jeffe: "His candidacy stands or falls on the Iraq war."