WASHINGTON — John McCain is feared by Democrats and liked by independents. That, paradoxically, is why he may yet be rejected by Republicans, even though he has bent over backward to satisfy conservative demands.

McCain exorcised the ghosts of South Carolina on Saturday, winning a critical primary in a state where he was viciously savaged eight years ago by George W. Bush. McCain’s loss ended his chances in 2000, but the sheer ferocity of the campaign against him only burnished his legend as the brave independent willing to confront a Republican political machine that punishes free thinking.

McCain’s politics-be-damned image has proved remarkably durable, even though he more recently cozied up to his right-wing critics in the anti-tax movement and the older parts of the religious right. Where he once bravely opposed Bush’s tax cuts, McCain now spouts orthodoxy in declaring they should be made permanent. He speaks of himself as the true Reaganite because of his opposition to federal spending.

In South Carolina it was enough — but only because moderates, liberals and independents identified McCain as the best available alternative.

McCain won overwhelmingly among voters who described themselves as moderate or liberal, but lost to Mike Huckabee among conservatives. He ran more than 2-1 behind Huckabee among those who identified themselves as very conservative. Even though McCain has long opposed abortion, he ran strongly among voters who favor keeping it legal. He lost among those who would outlaw it.

And McCain did not actually carry self-identified Republicans who voted in South Carolina. Independents saved his candidacy.

It is precisely this profile that worries Democrats. The persistence of McCain’s maverick image suggests he may be the one Republican who can rescue his party from the undertow of the Bush years.

In a matchup against Barack Obama, McCain would emphasize his foreign policy experience and military background. Obama has shown particular weakness among older voters in the Democratic contests so far. Those voters were key to Hillary Clinton’s victory on Saturday in the Nevada caucuses. The experience argument may have something to do with this and it could work for McCain as it has for Clinton.

For her part, Clinton has found her base among more partisan Democrats. McCain’s perceived independence would help him with swing voters, while conservatives who dislike him would rally to his candidacy as the one roadblock to a Clinton restoration.

But this is also what makes the next stage of the Republican contest so perilous for McCain. In many of the states that vote next — notably Florida, which casts ballots on Jan. 29 — independents will not be able to come to McCain’s aid. In such closed primaries, he will have to emphasize his fealty to traditional conservatism and use his strong support for the Iraq war as a Republican credential. Yet the more McCain tries to look like a typical Republican, the more he threatens his standing with middle-of-the-road voters.

Florida will be especially complicated because Rudy Giuliani, who has hung back from the competition so far, is fiercely contesting McCain for moderate voters, particularly Republicans who favor abortion rights. They are a more significant constituency in the party than is usually recognized.

Giuliani, unlike McCain, is an outright proponent of keeping abortion legal. In an effort to hold down Huckabee’s support among evangelicals — and to challenge Mitt Romney for flip-flopping on the issue — McCain no doubt will point, legitimately, to his long and consistent pro-life stand. McCain was able to do this in South Carolina without losing pro-choice votes because Giuliani did not compete there. In Florida, Giuliani is a viable alternative and could cost McCain critical votes.

McCain thus confronts the most difficult challenge he has faced so far. He made his name as a straight-talker who does not shade his positions to satisfy potential critics. But to win the rest of the way, McCain may have to offer himself as a split personality.

He will argue to those on the party’s right who mistrust him that they should support him as the one candidate who can appeal beyond the Republican base. But he will also try to ease conservative worries by presenting the most conformist version of himself, thereby giving independents food for second thoughts. At one and the same time, he will have to be the true conservative and the maverick, the loyal font of traditional Republican nostrums and the independent thinker, the candidate of both Fox News and CNN.

The campaign so far has tested McCain’s political skills, and he has proved himself shrewder than his opponents. The coming weeks will be a test for McCain’s soul.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.