FOR AN ORGANIZATION with a reputation for exclusivity and intolerance, the Republican party is surprisingly reluctant to kick anyone out. Earlier this month, after years of embarrassing fellow Republicans with his sniping at Jews, Pat Buchanan released a book suggesting the United States should have been more reluctant to go to war with Nazi Germany. At first, there was virtually no reaction. Then Buchanan let it be known he was thinking of jumping to the Reform party.

You would have expected cheers. You'd think Republicans would be relieved to finally cough up the Buchanan hairball. Instead, many seemed reluctant to let him go. Dan Quayle released a statement casting Buchanan's defection as a moral defeat for the GOP. George W. Bush, a man who claims Winston Churchill as a hero, refused to criticize Buchanan's views about the Second World War and last Friday called on Buchanan to stay in the party. By the end of last week, there was only one Republican presidential candidate willing to bid Buchanan good riddance: John McCain.

Buchanan reacted violently to McCain's criticism, denouncing the senator from Arizona as a liar, and implying that McCain -- a former prisoner of war who refused early release from captivity in North Vietnam -- lacked the courage to appear with him on the Today show. Editorial writers loved it. McCain was lauded, correctly, by his many friends in the press as a gutsy truth-teller, and otherwise treated to terrific news coverage.

Then he fell silent. McCain issued no more statements attacking Buchanan, and turned down opportunities to debate him on the war. The candidate who once did eight television interviews in a single day during the Kosovo crisis refused every offer to appear on a Sunday show to talk about Buchanan. Why? For McCain, continuing to disavow Pat Buchanan would have amounted to political tee-ball -- easy, and fun, and fundamentally very safe. It would have kept McCain, still struggling to get above 5 percent in the polls, squarely in the news. Every swipe at Buchanan would have provided him a mini-Sister-Souljah moment, establishing McCain's bona fides as a sober man of principle in contrast to Buchanan the crackpot. Buchanan, meanwhile, would have gotten more of what he deserves.

McCain wouldn't do it. And he has so far been loath to attack his main rival for the Republican nomination, George W. Bush. There's something almost gentlemanly about McCain's reluctance to go bare-knuckled -- in stump speeches he almost never criticizes anyone by name -- but it doesn't make much political sense. And it's unlikely to get him far in the presidential race.

The McCain strategy for victory is straightforward and well known: beat or finish close to Bush in New Hampshire, win South Carolina with the help of the state's large veterans' vote, and head into the New York and California primaries in early March riding the crest of an imminent upset. "At that stage you're on the wave," says Marshall Wittmann, an informal adviser to McCain. "You're on the covers of Time and Newsweek. You're on with Katie. The whole dynamic has changed."

At that point, the idea is, McCain will have captured the undivided attention of the media, which will in turn introduce him -- heroic biography and all -- to every Republican primary voter in America. Once McCain is well known, it will become obvious to voters that he is more qualified than George W. Bush to be commander in chief. Support for Bush will evaporate. McCain will win.

There are two problems with this scenario. First, it's probably not possible for the media to like or promote McCain more than they already do. (Thanks largely to rave reviews in newspapers and magazines, McCain's latest book has already sold close to 250,000 copies.) Second and more significant, Bush's support may be shallow, but it's very, very broad. His lead is so big, his fund-raising advantage so profound, Bush is likely to win the nomination on inertia alone, with or without New Hampshire and South Carolina. It's not enough, in other words, for McCain to begin to succeed in the early primaries. Bush must begin to fail. Dramatically.

The coming Bush Meltdown is at the heart of every challenger's strategy, though the McCain people are weirdly unwilling to admit it. "Bush is almost irrelevant to the McCain campaign," says one strategist with no hint of sarcasm. "It's much more about selling McCain than about tearing down Bush." Partly because of this attitude, there has been speculation that McCain is angling for a spot on the Bush ticket. "Absolutely not," replies McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky, and he's probably right. On the stump, McCain snorts when asked if he would consider becoming Bush's running mate, and goes on to make the job sound like something only a moron would accept. (A vice president, McCain says, has only two duties: to check daily on the health of the president, and to go to the funerals of Third World dictators.)

How to explain McCain's potentially fatal lack of nastiness? Some McCain advisers suggest that their candidate is just lying low for now, waiting until "people are listening" to unsheathe his hard edge. Perhaps. Or it may be that McCain simply wishes to remain a gentleman. In which case he'll probably remain a senator.

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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