Maybe I’m crazy, but I’d bet on John McCain to win the Republican presidential nomination. And the Democrat with the best chance to beat him is John Edwards.

In a way, contemplating the lineup of front-running candidates is a depressing exercise. From what they’ve said, no matter who wins, U.S. troops will remain in Iraq for a long time after the election. A fine mess you’ve gotten us into, President Bush.

Both McCain and Edwards have been pretty well written off by mainstream pundits. Edwards gets lost amid the stories about the powerful fundraisers, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Recently, however, some of the Clinton fans in the media appear to be suffering from buyer’s remorse and are taking a more critical look at her.

McCain was dismissed after the summer collapse of his fundraising operation. His strong support of the unpopular war has hurt him with independent voters. But he has plugged along, holding a solid second place to Rudy Giuliani in the national polls and remaining competitive with him in polling for the Jan. 22 New Hampshire primary.

The polls aren’t pushing me toward a long-shot bet on McCain. Like a horseplayer at the races, I’m always looking for information from someone who sounds smart and has the inside dope, whether it be a trainer or the guy in front of me in the betting window line.

In this case, the person who sounds smart is actually pretty smart. He’s Bill Clinton, and here is how he handicapped the Republican race on “Meet the Press” Sept. 30: Giuliani, Clinton said, is “quite durable,” while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is “quite appealing.” He noted that Giuliani is slightly ahead in national polls, while Romney leads in Iowa and New Hampshire surveys. The question, Clinton said, is whether Giuliani’s national lead will help him in the first contests or whether Romney, still trailing nationally, can advance in the early states.

“There are only two potential surprises,” he said. One is the former governor of Clinton’s home state, Arkansas — and a fellow native of Hope, Ark. — Mike Huckabee, who has turned out to be the best speaker of all the Republican candidates, a talent not reflected by his low standing in the polls. And then there is McCain.

“John McCain is getting his second breath, and if the independents in New Hampshire decide to vote in the Republican primary instead of the Democratic primary, he can surprise. He’s a very fine man. He’s done a lot for the country. I disagree with him strongly about Iraq. But I admire him. Any person would.”

Just how Republicans and independents feel about the war will determine the success or failure of McCain’s race for his party’s nomination. This is especially true in New Hampshire, where independents can vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary. Independents helped McCain to a big victory in the state in 2000.

It will be tough. Adam Nagourney reported in The New York Times that he found that independents, comprising 45 percent of the New Hampshire electorate, “have sharply veered Democratic, reflecting growing antiwar sentiment. …”

But there are also real Republicans voting in the primary, die-hards who haven’t switched to independent. They tend to be conservative, given to visible displays of patriotism and more inclined to support the war than oppose it. For example, the latest Washington Post/ABC poll showed that 80 percent of conservative Republicans feel the Democratic Congress has been too aggressive in opposing the war.

The conservative Republican world is foreign to progressive Democrats and many journalists. They don’t understand the automatic jaw tightening that comes when a real Republican hears too much criticism of the war. These Republicans really sing when it is National Anthem time at ballgames. They admire war heroes. And John McCain is a war hero.

I think, in the end, he can reach out to the Republican heartland better than that quirky New Yorker, Giuliani, or that overly slick Romney, whose Mormon faith may give these very traditional voters cause to pause and reflect before they cast their ballots.

Like McCain, Edwards is slogging along, usually beneath the notice of the high-powered media. He must win the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 14 or come exceedingly close to a victory if he is to remain afloat. The polls show he has a way to go.

Sen. Clinton continues to roll on. She has plenty of money. Her husband is a great help. Up against Obama and the rest of the crowd in the last debate, she looked strong and he seemed weak.

But she’s also a polarizing figure. She’s the one candidate who can be counted on to mobilize the voters — Republican voters, that is.

In June, MSNBC reported that 52 percent of the voters in a Mason-Dixon survey indicated they wouldn’t consider voting for her. Her campaign now seems to be directed at changing that dynamic, just as Obama’s is at transcending race and showing that white and Latino voters will support an African-American.

Edwards comes to the contest without this baggage.

His heritage is a help. Three of the Democrats’ post-World War II presidents were Southerners — Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Edwards is a progressive Southerner who could at least splinter the Republican hold on the South.

He was the first of the Democratic candidates to come out with a health insurance plan, and the proposals of the others are pretty much like his. He’s a populist in a country worried about healthcare, job security and economic stagnation. The decision of John and Elizabeth Edwards to keep campaigning after her cancer recurred probably resonates with the millions of Americans afflicted with terrible illness or injury.

Some may have thought John Edwards should have retreated with his wife to a life of care and convalescence. I don’t think so. Edwards showed guts, and that’s a pretty good quality in a candidate.

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