In the wake of John McCain's big win in Florida last night and his emergence as the clear front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, I thought back to two years ago and the run-up to the congressional midterm elections that were disastrous for the party.
Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, one of the party's most celebrated moderates, was in California to stump for Arnold Schwarzenegger and promote her book, "It's My Party, Too." In an interview, Whitman lamented the political environment dominated in her view by extremists on both sides.
That environment, she said at the time, would make it impossible for any candidate other than an extreme, combative conservative to win her party's presidential primary in 2008. McCain was among those she specifically counted out.
"I don't think they could get through the process as it exists," she said.
It is noteworthy that McCain is being advised in this campaign by the same person who managed Schwarzenegger's re-election in 2006: Steve Schmidt, who predicted two years ago that the governor's essentially nonpartisan campaign in California could serve as a roadmap for Republicans in 2008.
"The American people want to see this type of leadership," Schmidt said on the night of Schwarzenegger's re-election. "They want the fighting to stop."
For the moment, McCain will be working to unite the party and to reassure conservatives. But come fall when the general election campaign kicks in, if McCain is the nominee expect a campaign that tries to steal a page or two from Schwarzenegger's "post-partisan" handbook.