Huckabee Hearts McCain

You know what they say: If you can’t beat them, steal their taglines.

A new Web ad from John McCain, “Trust Huckabee,” takes its name from a third-party campaign that for the past month has been blanketing early states with push-polls praising Huckabee and slamming his rivals.

But instead of hitting back, McCain twists the meaning of “Trust Huckabee” to reflect well on himself—and, interestingly, on Huckabee. The spot features clips of Huckabee praising McCain (which he does often): “Sen. McCain, no matter what anyone may say, is a genuine conservative. … John McCain is a hero in this country, he’s a hero to me. … [He’s] pro-life … strong for our country’s defense and security.”

It’s a bizarre tactic, but it’s effective for several reasons. First, it fits with McCain’s current martyr complex . He claims he’s being attacked from all sides, but he’s of course determined to stay positive. Second, it uses Huckabee’s words. How can the “Trust Huckabee” folks complain about McCain when their own candidate likes him so much? Third, it makes McCain look like the front-runner. As South Carolina approaches, polls put him neck-and-neck with Huckabee. But by refusing to go negative, McCain comes off as confident. At the same time, it makes Huckabee look rather magnanimous as well. (In this way, it’s reminiscent of Biden’s ” Joe Is Right ” ad, which collected examples of his rivals praising him.)

And lastly, the ad doesn’t just not burn a bridge—it fortifies one. For McCain, Huckabee is an obvious vice presidential choice. Where McCain lacks conservative cred—on gay marriage, for instance—Huckabee would add some needed orthodoxy. Among Southerners to whom McCain’s immigration stance is repellent, Huckabee’s fence-building vision might have some appeal. Plus, a McCain-Huckabee ticket could practically charm its way into the White House.

An alternative explanation for McCain’s pacifism is that he doesn’t see Huckabee as a threat. Under this rationale, McCain would ramp up the attacks if Huckabee took South Carolina and surged in the national polls. But seeing as both men have essentially renounced negative campaigning, a tactical change like that would reek of hypocrisy. Chances are they’ll extend the love-in as long as possible.