This year, John McCain is going to have to do what he failed to do in 2000: Beat George W. Bush.
But wait, isn't McCain going to be running against Barack Obama or (possibly) Hillary Clinton this year?
Yes, but only in one sense. In another sense, McCain's burden this year is as much about convincing voters that he is not a continuation of the Bush presidency as it is about beating his Democratic opponent.
"John McCain unfortunately is burdened by a not very good economy, by an ongoing war in Iraq and by Bush's poll numbers in the high 20s," Ken Duberstein, Ronald Reagan's former chief of staff, who is very well-connected in Republican circles, told me Monday. "McCain can't be in a position of defending the last eight years."
How serious is the problem for McCain? A USA Today/Gallup Poll released Monday states: "George W. Bush may do as much damage to John McCain's chances of being elected as Jeremiah Wright does to Barack Obama's."
The poll found "38 percent of likely voters saying McCain's association with Bush makes them less likely to vote for McCain, while 33 percent say Obama's association with Wright diminishes their likelihood of voting for Obama."
Only 7 percent of voters say they are more likely to vote for McCain because of his association with Bush which is a shockingly small figure, in my opinion. (Some 1 percent of voters say they are more likely to vote for Obama because of his relationship with Wright.)
Historically, Americans have rarely elected the same party to the White House for three terms in a row. And when they have done so, it usually has come after two terms of a popular president: George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988 after eight years of Reagan.
But there was a difference between then and now. As Duberstein put it: "George H.W. Bush benefited greatly by a sound economy, a world at peace and Ronald Reagan's popularity in his last year of office."
This year, George W. Bush's approval rating has now sunk to a dismal 28 percent, which is not much of a lead-in for a McCain candidacy.
The Democratic nominee will put it this way: "If you really want George Bush to have a third term, then vote for John McCain."
But what helped doom McCain in 2000 that he was too much of a maverick for some Republican primary voters may help him now. His maverick status puts some distance between him and Bush.
"If it were any other Republican nominee than McCain right now, he would be losing by 20 votes to Barack Obama," Duberstein said. "But because McCain is a maverick and an independent change agent, he is running neck and neck with Obama." (The latest Gallup daily tracking poll shows Obama at 47 percent and McCain at 43 percent.)
While McCain points out that he differs from Bush on issues such as climate change and spending, they are closely tied on the need to continue the Iraq war.
In the end, however, this will not matter, says Greg Mueller, who was a senior adviser to Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes in their presidential campaigns, because "McCain is not going to get the anti-war vote anyway."
"The war is not popular, but McCain has to couch the issue as Obama wanting to raise the white flag of surrender and leaving the Iraqi people to die," Mueller said. "It's all about how you couch it. If this election is about national defense, it's over and McCain wins. The economic issues are the ones that make me the most nervous."
But even on economics, Mueller says, McCain has a path to victory if he frames it correctly. "McCain's position is fiscal responsibility with long-term stimulus," Mueller said. "And Democrats are going to step in the same cow manure that they have stepped in in the past: They want big spending programs bordering on socialism."
Mueller says that because Bush has presided over spending increases, this adds to the degree of separation between McCain and Bush and helps McCain.
Duberstein sees the need for McCain to walk the line between himself and Bush carefully.
"McCain will be successful if he pursues separation without rupture," Duberstein said. "McCain can follow in the footsteps of George Herbert Walker Bush and present himself as a 'kinder, gentler' president."
But, Duberstein says, McCain will be better off if he can steer the conversation away from the current president entirely.
"This election can't be a referendum on Bush if you are John McCain," Duberstein said. "The American people want to look forward, not back."