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This time, a quick consensus

THIS TIME eight years ago, The State’s editorial board faced a choice in the S.C. Republican primary between a visionary, “maverick” lawmaker with an inspiring resume and a governor who said he’d take the CEO approach, delegating the vision to the team he would build. We chose the self-described executive type, much to our later regret.

This time, we’re going with the hero.

Our board — Publisher Henry Haitz; Associate Editors Warren Bolton, Cindi Scoppe and Mike Fitts; and I — sat down Friday morning and deliberated for about 90 minutes before emerging with a clear and unequivocal consensus: We like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee a lot, but we have no doubt that Sen. John McCain is better-prepared to be our commander in chief.

As our lead editor on national affairs, Mike framed the discussion, speaking at length about each of the Republicans. As others joined in, it quickly became apparent that each of us had reached very similar conclusions.

You may not think that’s remarkable, but it is. Ours is a diverse group, and we struggled through remarkably grueling disagreements over presidential primary endorsements in the Republican and Democratic contests in 2000 and 2004, respectively. Those debates led to outcomes that some of us were never happy with. This time was very different.

Mike spoke for everyone when he said Ron Paul was running in the wrong party; he had been a far better fit as the Libertarian nominee in 1988.

Fred Thompson’s campaign peaked before it actually began, and never had much appeal. His candidacy still seems to lack a reason for being, although Warren suggested one: In the Myrtle Beach debate Thursday night, Mr. Thompson seemed to be “carrying water” for his friend John McCain, with his unrelenting attacks on Mr. Huckabee.

While Rudy Giuliani makes the case that being “out of line culturally” with S.C. Republicans should not be a deal killer, he’s not so convincing that he’s the guy to lead the country in a dangerous and volatile time. Beyond his constant refrain of “9/11,” he doesn’t articulate what he would offer that the others would not. Mike, who is much troubled by the Bush record on civil liberties, worried that the former prosecutor would actually be worse.

Mike was sorry Mitt Romney never came in for an interview, because he had “heard so many different things about him.” Of course, the “different things” came from the candidate himself, who has reinvented himself on issue after issue in his effort to find a stance that sells. So how can he be trusted to lead? Cindi observed, and I strongly agreed, that Mr. Romney’s great mistake was not running on his solid record as governor, particularly health care reform. He ran from it instead, suggesting contempt both for GOP voters and for the people who had elected him governor.

Mike Huckabee made a very good impression in his meeting with us, back when almost no one thought he had a chance. We particularly liked his lack of fear of the more virulent government-hating element in the GOP — he had been unashamed to govern in Arkansas. He has the best grasp of the nation’s health crisis among the Republicans, and the greatest ability to communicate. We don’t like his “flat tax” or his vague protectionist notions, and he’s very weak on national security. That last point is his biggest drawback. His “gates of hell” bluster about the Iranian gunboats Thursday struck a jarringly false note, and it’s not what we’d want a president to say.

John McCain has no such need to prove his toughness, so he’s comfortable speaking more reasonably. His understanding of America’s role in the world greatly exceeds that of his rivals (and of the current administration). He will always fight for what he believes in, but will not dismiss those who disagree. He’s never been an executive (in civilian life), but he’s a leader, which is better. Henry, the only businessman in the group, said the economy and health care are important, “But Iraq and foreign affairs are still the top concern,” and no one is better suited to address them.

Warren demurred, especially with regard to Iraq: “I don’t think we ought to be there.” But while he disagrees with the senator (and me) on that, he respects and appreciates his military record, his willingness to work across party lines and his integrity.

Henry’s one concern about Sen. McCain was his age. The rest of us were less worried — he seems unfazed by the strain of campaigning. But we agreed that should be a consideration in his choice of a running mate.

Before we broke up, we agreed that the two leading (in the polls, and in our estimation) Republican candidates were preferable to either party’s nominee in 2004. Americans deserve a choice, at long last, between “good” and “better,” rather than being forced to settle for “sad” or “worse.”

In a few days, our board will convene again to decide whom to endorse in the Democratic primary. I don’t know where we’ll end up on that; we have yet to meet with the major candidates.

But however that comes out, we feel very good about the growing likelihood that one of the candidates on the ballot in November will be John McCain.

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