McCain’s next hurdle

John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMellman: Memories may be beautiful, yet… Schumer to oppose Pompeo as secretary of State Arizona GOP blocked from changing rules on filling McCain's seat MORE needs a makeover. He can keep his integrity, and there’s no need for Botox. He won’t even have to scrap Straight Talk for vapid campaign platitudes. But as the likely Republican nominee, having run on the grim realities of radical Islamic extremism, it is time for John McCain to happy up, befriend his GOP enemies and find his voice — without crying, of course.

He may not be feeling that Ronald Reagan optimism; certainly his party isn’t. It is no Morning in America for conservatives frothing at the mouth over McCain’s staggering, historic comeback and victory. His two-fold challenge is daunting. McCain must adapt to this unprecedented moment in history, simultaneously assuaging and engaging his GOP base while appealing to the energized middle so starved for change.

McCain’s apostasy on immigration, campaign finance reform, tobacco regulation, the Bush tax cuts, stem cell research, global warming, HMO reform and even partisan fights like using the filibuster against judicial nominees is undeniable.

But McCain should ask conservatives to put it in the past in exchange for something he offers for their future. McCain needs to make an earnest commitment to a legacy of rebuilding and repairing the Republican Party. He can assure his base by immediately beginning a discussion with the conservative coalition — religious leaders, immigration foes and tax cut advocates — about his pick for vice president. This person needs to be young, affable and popular in the party: the anti-Cheney. No matter what his appeal or how much McCain owes him, he cannot pick Mike Huckabee, criticized by party purists as a tax-and-spend liberal. McCain should choose from the bench of comers who will lead the Republican Party of tomorrow. They include: Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, whom conservative religious leaders attempted to recruit for the 2008 race; Gov. Charlie Crist of the critical battleground of Florida; or Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenators debate new business deduction, debt in tax law hearing Tax rules will be subject to more OMB review under new memo Ending sex trafficking tomorrow requires preventing child abuse today MORE, a longtime congressman from the key battleground of Ohio, and both budget director and U.S. trade representative to President Bush.

Unfortunately for McCain he won’t be running against a dour, dandruffy white male Democrat this year. He is praying for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDems flip New York state seat that Republicans have held for nearly four decades Dems win majority in New York Senate, but won't control it Chelsea Clinton hits back at NYT reporter over details in new book MORE to win. With her as foil, McCain stands to not only unite his own party against her, but pick up independents she cannot attract, as well as bitter Obama Democrats opposed to a Clinton restoration of poisonous partisan politics.

McCain must immediately end his bellicose references to “other wars.” The terrorist threat is real and the reason so many Republicans, from moderate to conservative, have chosen McCain. Moreover, McCain has been vindicated on the troop surge in Iraq. Indeed, his campaign boasts of foretelling both the course of the Iraq war and the ineptitude of Donald Rumsfeld. He criticized the inadequacy of troop levels and Rumsfeld by stating clearly that he had no confidence in the defense secretary as early as December of 2004. It was gutsy; McCain was alone; and he was right.

But to win, McCain must swallow the fact that defense is secondary these days to anxious Americans watching a slide into recession: a credit crisis, an upward creep in unemployment, a decline of the dollar and a surging deficit. His refusal even to utter the word “economy,” when asked directly at the last Republican debate in California and again in his press conference Wednesday attempting to discuss domestic concerns, comes off as grumpy and stubborn.

McCain may also have to stop quoting Chairman Mao — “It’s always darkest before it goes completely black” — since voters in 2008 want possibility, not pessimism. Ronald Reagan could talk about deadly threats and deficits and still leave people feeling good; McCain will need to learn how.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.