He's too disliked by conservatives. He's trailing in the national polls. He's not raising enough money. For months the media's storylines on John McCain have all focused on the reasons why he won't win the Republican nomination for president, but perhaps they should start focusing on the reasons he could. Here are just two:
• • McCain is maintaining slim leads in the RealClearPolitics poll averages in all three crucial early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Even more important than his lead in the polls, however, is that McCain has been steadily plugging away building out organizations in these states while Rudy Giuliani has made far fewer visits and is still openly debating whether he will parti- cipate in the first critical test of the Republican race, which will come at the Ames, Iowa, straw poll in August.
• • A little-noticed indication of McCain's strength appeared last week when he edged ahead of Giuliani in the political futures markets. Much like the stock market where real money is being invested by real people, these markets often represent a more reliable and more accurate picture of where the race really stands than can be gotten from individual polls. As of this writing McCain and Giuliani were exactly tied in the political futures markets.
Taken together, these points indicate McCain's true strength as a candidate is probably being understated by the media and the national polls.
That's certainly how the McCain campaign feels about their position. "Despite what the pundits have said, we've always had a very good understanding of what we needed to do to win this race," McCain campaign manager Terry Nelson told me on Wednesday. "Overall, we feel we've built the best team and we feel very good about where we are."
The race is in the very early stages and it will almost certainly get a good shaking up when actor and former Sen. Fred Thompson enters the race, as most observers expect he will in the not-too-distant future. Thompson is getting between 10 percent to 15 percent in the national polls as a non-candidate and would most likely improve his share of support upon formally entering the contest, putting him right up near the top of the field.
It's too soon to speculate on exactly how Thompson's candidacy might change the dynamics of the race, but it is worth pointing out another favorable indicator for McCain is that his support in the national polls has been remarkably steady over time, even when those polls have included Thompson as an alternative.
Two months ago when pollsters were not asking about Thompson, McCain was at 21 percent in the RealClearPolitics average for the Republican nomination. Today, with every major survey including Thompson, McCain is at 22 percent. Just as important, over that same period front-runner Giuliani has seen his support decline by more than 10 percentage points, from 38 to 27.8 percent.
The bottom line is that those who were quick to write off McCain would be well advised to take another look and to remember the credo that "slow and steady wins the race.'' McCain still has his flaws, and he still has a long way to go to win the nomination, but eight months away from the first primary he's in a much better position than many people think.
Tom Bevan is executive editor of RealClearPolitics.com.