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As I’ve obsessively watched the race for the GOP nomination, I have noticed that despite its vicissitudes and seeming volatility, one thing has remained constant: Republican voters have consistently underestimated their best (perhaps only) chance of retaining the White House in 2008.

John McCain is not someone I like, but he’s someone I can respect. It’s not just that he’s a bona fide war hero. It’s not just that he has more governing experience than Romney, Giuliani, and Thompson combined. He’s the only Republican in the race with any semblance of integrity.

McCain didn’t just come out of nowhere or invent an identity to run for president. Look at the rest of the Republican field. Fred Thompson was undistinguished as a US Senator, and seems to have been largely drafted into the race by deceptively optimistic poll numbers; a wealthy lobbyist and Washington insider, he’s now being marketed as the simple man’s pickup-truck-and-gun-show candidate. Giuliani and Romney have been tripping over themselves downplaying and apologizing for their past liberal positions. Despite the extensive repackaging they’ve gone through, the only reason they’re still contenders is because they’ve had the good fortune of being mayor on 9/11 and rich, respectively. Ron Paul is still a joke; and –though he’s run a fine campaign—who the hell is Mike Huckabee?

In the parlance of our times, McCain is legit. Unlike the rest of the field, he’s running as himself, not McCain 2.0 (New and Improved), McCain* (A True Conservative - Since April 2002), or John! (Now With Personality). He may be a warmonger and an idiot, but at least you know his belligerence and stupidity are genuine and not the highly-polished product of a skilled marketing campaign to appeal to the jingoistic and dim-witted Republican electorate.

I’ve heard Republicans say that the very fact that liberals like me can respect John McCain suggests that he is too much of a moderate to be nominated by the modern GOP. But if you look at his opponents, Giuliani is clearly the most socially liberal and Huckabee is much farther to the left on economic issues, while Ron Paul takes that honor in the realm of foreign policy.

Like Barack Obama, McCain has centrist appeal without actually being a centrist on policy. Despite his reputation as a ‘maverick’, for the most part McCain’s independent image is greatly exaggerated. He has taken a lot of very public, seemingly audacious stances, breaking GOP taboos by shunning the religious right, supporting campaign finance reform, opposing Bush on torture, and taking a moderate stance on illegal immigration. Although he ultimately caved to the right on all of these issues except campaign finance, he still gets a lot of the credit for it and to this day is mistakenly referred to as independent by the media.

Republican primary voters have rarely, if ever, had the opportunity to nominate somewhat as conservative as McCain who is simultaneously adored by the media and popular among independent voters.

Thank God they’re too stupid to realize it.