The conventional wisdom as of late seems to be that Republicans should be hoping and praying that Hillary Clinton somehow manages to eke out a narrow victory over Barack Obama to clinch the Democratic nomination, presumably because she is the easier candidate to defeat in the fall. To affirm this notion, the chattering classes point to national polls showing Obama’s more-impressive margin of victory over McCain than Hillary’s — if, that is, Hillary is even running ahead.

As presumptive Republican nominee Rudy Giuliani can attest to, national polls eight months out of an election are perfectly reliable indicators of how a candidate will perform once the voting begins.

In reality, Barack Obama’s chances against John McCain are quite slim. It should be quite telling, even to the most casual of observers, that at the peak of Obamamania (that is to say: before his dirty laundry has been aired and during a period where people are projecting their own political fantasies onto Obama), in a year when Republicans are supposed to be utterly doomed, that the Illinois senator can’t even manage to scrape together a statistically significant margin of victory nationwide.

McCain will defeat Obama because (a) Obama is not what he claims to be and (b) McCain actually is what Obama only pretends to be.

For all of his talk, Senator Obama is one of the most reliably partisan votes in Congress. He has shown no indication that he is willing to buck his party’s base over any issue — with the exception of the triviality of merit pay for teachers — in the name of unification. McCain, whether one agrees or disagrees with the actions he has taken in the name of finding common ground, actually tries to find it, and it is reflected in his much-heralded appeal to independents and the repulsion that the party faithful possess toward him.

It isn’t an accident that McCain — the candidate in the race that actually possesses an independent streak — is expected to need to ‘win over’ his party’s base to run a strong campaign and that Obama won the endorsement of And therein lies the rub: Obama cannot simultaneously run as the Candidate of Choice and a bipartisan unifier.

Furthermore, what exactly, can Mr. Obama do to dissuade independent and moderate voters from casting a vote for Mr. McCain? Pound him on the war, as if he’s been trying to keep his support for it a big secret throughout the campaign? In reality, McCain has little to lose in the way of independents: he has been fully vetted and his weak points have been thoroughly aired — with the possible exception of the non-scandal Keating Five ordeal (and his involvement pales in comparison to the sketchy dealings of Obama with Tony Rezko).

Hillary can’t take shots at Obama on this front because she doesn’t have a record of being a unifying force, either. Certainly her record is more bipartisan than Obama’s, but calling her a unifying force in light of that would be akin to saying that Saddam Hussein was a swell guy because Adolf Hitler murdered far more civilians. Neither Clinton nor Obama are unifying figures. McCain is a unifying figure. McCain can tear Obama’s facade down.

Clinton, though, possesses a key general election advantage that Obama does not: Obama’s key constituencies will never consider voting for John McCain. “Latte liberals” and college students are hardly the type that will head to the undecided camp should Obama be knocked out by Clinton. Seniors and Hispanics, however, are constituencies that both Clinton and McCain run strongly with: McCain can tear away at disaffected Clinton voters in a way that he cannot with disaffected Obama supporters, all of whom would eventually suck it up and vote for Clinton.

It also must be remembered that electoral math is the name of the game: Obama might win Massachusetts by 40 points rather than 25, but that’s meaningless if Clinton is the stronger candidate in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania (she is). (Rudy Giuliani was an appealing Republican general election candidate for the same reason.)

Finally, someone that loves Hillary Clinton today is not going to hate her after a negative ad campaign is run against her. Her reputation as a “polarizing” figure is positive for her — those that are entrenched in her camp are total loyalists (and she’s got a floor of about 45%, nationally), and those that aren’t will be relieved to know that she isn’t, in fact, the devil incarnate. Some of those people might even consider voting for her. Clinton, interestingly enough, probably has nowhere to go but up. Obama has hit his peak and has nowhere to go but down.

The Clinton camp can’t say all of this, of course, but people with influence — superdelegates, for instance (who will be the deciding factor in the race; neither candidate will be able to amass a majority of pledged delegates) — should take heed of such signals.

That is, if they want to win, rather than be part of a personality cult.