‘Denver — we may have a problem’

Eighty-one percent of the American people think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Ninety percent think the Iraq war is a drain on the economy. And two out of three think Republican President George Bush is not doing a great job leading the greatest nation on the face of the Earth.

Question. Given this dire, albeit accurate, report card for the current Republican administration, public disenchantment with the Republican war, and overall anxiety about the Republican economy, why is Republican Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 Fighter pilot vs. astronaut match-up in Arizona could determine control of Senate The Hill's Morning Report — Recession fears climb and markets dive — now what? MORE (Ariz.) doing so well in head-to-head match-up polls with Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 Obama's high school basketball jersey sells for 0,000 at auction Dirty little wars and the law: Did Osama bin Laden win? MORE (D-Ill.)?

A quick response from any Democrat spinmeister might be that this is simply free-ride time for McCain.

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While Obama and Clinton are in the beat-the-tar-out-of-one-another part of the festivities, McCain has been able to look like a world leader, to float above it all, both literally and figuratively, and do presidential things like traveling to Iraq, Israel, Paris and London, as he did a few weeks ago.

Fair enough. A good self-assuring case could be made for that response and besides, head-to-head match-up polls seven months before the general election probably aren’t worth very much in the grand scheme of things.

But then again. Apart from technical discussions about pledged delegate counts, and superdelegate mission statements, perhaps the Democrats’ real difficulty in handing off the political equivalent of the Olympic torch to either one of their talented candidates might spring from a deeper pool of anxiety about the realities of blowing a presidential race in a year when the Republicans have absolutely no business being competitive.

Last year, before I started dabbling with semi-presidential politics during a period that I now call my “summer of insanity,” I would query Republicans on the Hill, and off, about expectations for 2008.

Most responses, even from typical, red-meat, conservative party loyalists didn’t require words. Guttural sounds, rolled eyes, palms to forehead, and heads snapped back in disgust was all the body language one needed to conclude that even die-hard Republicans knew they didn’t deserve another ticket to the White House dance this fall.

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Of course, these same diehards officially detested Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTop Sanders adviser: Warren isn't competing for 'same pool of voters' Anti-Trump vets join Steyer group in pressing Democrats to impeach Trump Republicans plot comeback in New Jersey MORE and what then looked like her inevitable path to the nomination, but you got the idea in talking to them that, even though she would never in a million years get their votes, they couldn’t fault the American people if they decided they wanted to make a change.

That was then. This is now.

Webster’s Dictionary has commissioned a new definition for “inevitable,” the senator from Phoenix rose from the ashes, Fred Dalton Thompson signed up with the William Morris Agency and, despite an inept administration that has shattered the Republican brand, the party still has a good chance of pick-pocketing the White House keys from the Democrats vest this November.

Always best not to over think these matters, so this is my quick refrigerator-door take on why, despite all the weeping and gnashing of teeth over multiple dilemmas, McCain will make this a race.

Hillary Clinton: Competent but not likable. Truth be told, given the presidency, most Republicans don’t think she would screw it up any worse than Bush has. But people just don’t like her. And, don’t fool yourself, simple likeability matters a lot.

Barack Obama: Regular people, including tons of Republicans, couldn’t like him any more than they already do. The guy just makes you smile. But, folks worry about his color problem. Translation: Too green.

John McCain: Likable enough, even with his “suffer-no-fools” temperament. And despite Democratic wariness over his Iraq obsession, they know the “100-years-in-Iraq” criticism is complete nonsense. Even though they may not like him, they respect him and would trust him with the keys.

One serious, high-level Republican insider, who has the old-fashioned notion that it is a good thing for Republicans and Democrats to socialize with one another, tells me that he is increasingly seeing a trend amongst his Democratic friends. “They could live with McCain,” he says. And, although they don’t see McCain as the flashiest car on the block, “he has withstood the test of time, is familiar, but bucks the trend as far as status quo politics.” In short, says the insider, McCain represents “safe” change.

Something Democrats might think about before they book Barbra Streisand for the inaugural gala.

You can reach Jim Mills at jmills@thehill.com.