Who could win against a Democrat in the fall: George W. Bush or John McCain?
The question has been a major subtext to the 2000 Republican nomination fight since the first days of the campaign in the leafy hills of New Hampshire.
Now, as the two men prepare for a cornucopia of primaries in the next week, electability is becoming even more central as Mr. McCain tries to cut into Mr. Bush's strong standing among the party faithful.
To be sure, Republicans - both parties for that matter - have always considered winnability a key factor in choosing a nominee. But for the GOP in 2000, coming off embarrassing defeats in 1992 and 1996, it has been almost an obsession. It was a major reason the party establishment coalesced around Bush early in the campaign.
Now McCain, trumpeting his ability to appeal broadly to Democrats and independents, is trying to use it to woo pragmatic Republicans in key primary states, including here in Ohio. Votes today in Washington, Virginia, and North Dakota will provide an early test of its importance.
"There's nothing like being out of power for a while to make you aware of the pluses of being in power," says Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.
Analysts caution that electability is an ephemeral idea: A candidate who does well in fictional matchups against a Democrat one week, as McCain does now, may not do well the next week.
But the current polls are proving worrisome to Bush partisans. A recent Gallup survey shows the Arizona senator beating Al Gore by 24 points - 59 percent to 35 percent. Bush beats Mr. Gore, too, but by only 5 points, 50 percent to 45 percent.
A wobbly stool
It's statistics like these that have dulled Bush's once-sparkling image. Early on, he adopted a three-legged "marketing strategy," says New Hampshire pollster Dick Bennett. "He said to voters, 'I'm the best because I have the money, I have the party support, and I can win - and that's all you need to know.' "
The problem is "many people have said, 'Yeah, I understand that, but I don't like you.' "
Furthermore, Bush has already spent much of the nearly $70 million he raised last year. He has made some questionable decisions, such as going to Bob Jones University in South Carolina, a school that doesn't allow interracial dating.
He also doesn't attract independent voters nearly as well as McCain does. Many of these voters defected to Ross Perot in 1992, helping to defeat Bush's father in the race against Bill Clinton.
Analysts say these voters will be crucial again this year, especially with a well-funded Reform Party candidate - perhaps Pat Buchanan - soon to enter the fray.
Still, many Bush backers remain confident he'll win the nomination - and ultimately the White House. They cite his establishment support, crucial in a fall campaign. If a candidate makes mistakes along the way, the party can rally. It's something that McCain - even if he gets the nomination - may not have.
Supporters of the Texas governor also point to his fund-raising prowess and 24-karat name. Certainly Bush, too, remains strong in the South - a region crucial to presidential victories.
Despite some missteps, Bush proved in South Carolina he could fight back from a loss and campaign hard. It's something that whoever takes on the Democratic nominee in the fall - especially if it's Gore - will have to do well.
"Republicans are sure they've got a fighter," says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli. "They're just not certain they have a winner."
But McCain is an unknown prospect, too. His lack of establishment support is glaring. He has just four senators supporting his longshot bid. And in South Carolina - when Bush's attacks were the most virulent - some thought McCain showed thin skin.
"It's unclear whether he has the hardiness to face defeats in national politics - and whether he can reach as deep as you have to reach sometimes for a vote," says Mr. Ciruli.
McCain has, however, stirred a broad spectrum of voters in a way no one expected.
In New Hampshire, Michigan, Arizona, and Washington, pollsters find his "favorability ratings" to be in the mid- to high-80s. "That's unheard of, even among people like Ronald Reagan," says Mr. Bennett.
This highlights perhaps McCain's biggest strength. As the self-styled Republican reformer, he has made it difficult for opponents' attacks to stick because they look like "just another effort by the establishment to tear him down," says Ciruli. That could insulate him from attacks by the Democratic nominee as well.
Is this any way to choose?
Still, for all the speculation about electability, there's some question about whether it's the best criterion for choosing a nominee.
Historically, other pushes for electability have had fairly favorable results. One of the nation's greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, got his party's nod in 1860 over William Henry Seward because Seward was too vocal in his opposition to slavery. Lincoln, who was more ambiguous, was the one considered to be more electable.
In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower got the blessing because Robert Taft - "Mr. Republican" - wasn't considered electable. Eisenhower went on to two terms.
With McCain, "people like him and say, 'All right, that's what we want,' " says Bennett. "But does that mean he would be good at governing? We have no clue."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society