WASHINGTON — When John McCainrecently appeared to shut the door on running for president in 2004, he left a crack open not for running as a Republican, but as a third-party candidate.
As the Arizona senator has been emphasizing his ties with the Republican Party and his lack of interest in running for the GOP nomination, he also has been underscoring his political identity: "I'm a Teddy Roosevelt Republican," he says.
Well, let's look at the Teddy Roosevelt record. In 1904, on the eve of his election victory, Roosevelt went out of his way to pledge that after 1908 (which would be the end of his second term) he would never run again.
That commitment didn't last. In 1912, Roosevelt, disappointed with President William Howard Taft, challenged him for the party's nomination. But when the party turned him down at the convention, Teddy became a third-party nominee.
Now Roosevelt didn't renounce his Republicanism when he took on Mr. Taft and the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson. He headed a new Progressive Party, labeled the Bull Moose Party (Teddy said he was as "fit as a bull moose" as he entered the fray). But what the voters saw was the same old TR, that independent, gutsy fellow, getting back into the fight once again.
Roosevelt drew enough votes to beat Taft, but by splitting the Republican vote he helped Wilson win.
I'm not saying the charismatic John McCain will run in 2004. I'm saying he just might if the currently high-flying President Bush begins to fall off his popularity and becomes vulnerable. Likely? No. Possible? Yes. Let's not forget how quickly the first President Bush's popularity plummeted after the Gulf War.
But McCain could certainly become a third-party candidate and remain, as Teddy essentially did, the same person with the same ideals and positions on issues.
Should he run as a third-party candidate, would McCain simply end up as a spoiler helping defeat Bush and elect the Democrat? Just as Roosevelt did with Wilson?
I don't think so. A third-party candidate has a much better chance of winning today than back in the early 1900s. People then were strongly inclined to vote the straight ticket. That's why Roosevelt's feat of beating Taft by 632,874 votes was so remarkable.
But today, party affiliation is not nearly so strong. Remember in 1992, how for a short while Ross Perot was beating both Bill Clinton and Bush in the polls? Then he dropped out of the race and entered it again. Perot never regained that early support when much of America was viewing him as a courageous idea person who would bring fresh air to the presidency. He ended up with close to 20 percent of the vote, contributing to Bush's defeat.
But I think Perot's early showing in that campaign provides an insight into what a truly attractive third-party candidate could do today. McCain could be that kind of candidate.
There's strong evidence of the fading importance of the parties in the current midterm elections. Look across the country and one sees in race after race the candidates running on the issues abortion, guns, environment, jobs, etc. and not on their party allegiance. Candidates know that voters these days cross over easily to vote on a single issue.
I know that McCain has indicated he has no "lust" to leave the Republican Party. I believe him. But Teddy certainly must have felt the same way. And he got to feeling that the country so needed him as president that he reneged on his pledge not to run again.
When Roosevelt couldn't run for president within the party, he went outside of it but without giving up on his beliefs or his approach to getting things done.
Who would get behind a McCain third-party bid? There certainly are a lot of Democrats who seem to be yearning for a chance to support him. And Republican voters? We saw how effective McCain was against Bush in the primaries, nearly overtaking him.
But that was yesterday.
Today a wartime President Bush is still quite popular despite business scandals that hurt the stock market.
I'm only saying that should the voters turn cool on this president, Senator McCain is out there. I think he might well challenge the incumbent president as a third-party candidate, just as Teddy did even if he has to renege a bit on what he has been saying.