I thought last night’s Republican presidential debate served as a useful reminder of how much of John McCain’s much-vaunted political comeback has been driven by the configuration of alternatives. The level of support McCain is currently drawing is perfectly compatible with losing badly to a much more popular alternative. But the field is incredibly fractured. You have Mike Huckabee constantly eating away ate Mitt Romney’s efforts to consolidate GOP “regulars” to stop McCain. And then last night you had a suddenly vigorous Fred Thompson in the field. Ron Paul’s eating up 7 percent or so of the vote. And Rudy Giuliani’s still in the race and still doing very well in national polling.
With so many candidates in the field, you’re in true anything can happen territory. John McCain doesn’t seem to have more support than he had in 2000 when he lost. Indeed, in some respects he seems to have less support. But keep enough candidates in the mix and a losing level of support suddenly becomes a winning one. Presumably, Thompson and Giuliani will drop out if they don’t stage miraculous recoveries of some sort soon, though I suppose one might think that Thompson is staying in the race precisely in order to help out McCain.