What does McCain's bracket tell us about the campaign he's running? It would be hard to come up with more conservative picks. McCain has all four No. 1 seeds going to the Final Four. That's never happened in NCAA history, and it's a classic front-runner strategy sure to lose the office pool. His longest shot in the Elite Eight is a third seed, Washington State; the rest are first or second seeds. The Arizona senator doesn't even choose his home-state Wildcats to knock off top-seeded Florida. Straight talk, or a savvy play for Florida's Super Tuesday primary? You make the call.
McCain's picks aren't crazy. Of his few upsets, some are good bets, like thuggish Duke over traditional underperformer Pittsburgh. His biggest sleeper, Washington State, is a favorite of sportwriters, too. The biggest risk in McCain's bracket is that he doesn't take more such risks. He needs more gambles like the two he makes (along with Duke) for the Sweet 16: Louisville over Texas A&M and Southern Cal over Texas. The second is gutsier than the first, but along with the first-round departures he foresees for Texas Tech, North Texas, and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, those picks share a common, endearing bias reminiscent of McCain's 2000 campaign: Always mess with Texas.
Of course, it's always possible McCain made safe picks not because he's conservative but because he's just being polite. When you invite thousands of supporters to take part in a friendly contest, the sporting thing is to let your guests win. Nobody likes a candidate who can't handle losing a bet with his own friends, which may explain why you won't be able to go head-to-head with Rudy Giuliani's brackets anytime soon. McCain's top-seed-heavy bracket is perfectly designed to avoid the rudeness of trouncing his guests as well as the political embarrassment of finishing dead last.
Here at Slate, we want candidates to take more risks, and we don't think John McCain should have to take these risks alone. So, as a special service to demoralized conservatives, we've filled out brackets for all McCain's Republican challengers, in a manner that's consistent with the overall strategy of their campaigns. We've also filled out the bracket McCain should have picked, if he weren't playing it safe. Since we're not allowed to make campaign contributions, the prize for the winning campaign will be one they either don't need or won't accept: a McCain fleece.
Here are the entries, in reverse order of candidate seedings:
Ron Paul/Duncan Hunter: These two are the play-in game of the Republican primaries. One will survive just long enough to get whomped by the fron-trunner. Their joint strategy: Pick every No. 16 seed, and pick the winner of the play-in game to win it all. Based on a coin flip, we assigned Niagara to Paul and Florida A&M to Hunter. News flash: Duncan Hunter has already lost.
Tom Tancredo: For most dark horses, the strategy is to pick every long shot. But as the anti-immigration candidate, Tancredo takes a single-issue approach. In every matchup, he picks the team farthest from the Mexican border. Like Tancredo's campaign, an Albany-Gonzaga final isn't likely. But at least he'll improve his chance to be McCain's running mate by nixing every school from Texas.
Sam Brownback/Mike Huckabee/Tommy Thompson/Jim Gilmore: At this stage, it's hard to tell these four candidates apart. Besides, we don't have time to flesh out the obvious, if uphill, Huckabee strategy—always choose the skinnier team. So, we lumped them together in one entry, with a Final Four made up of the top team from each candidate's home state: Kansas, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Virginia. No 12th-seed like Arkansas has ever made the Final Four. Still, these four amigos still have a better chance of winning the pool than the nomination.
Newt Gingrich/Fred Thompson/Chuck Hagel/Jeb Bush: Won't make the Thursday deadline. March Madness is like anything else: You must be entered to win.
Mitt Romney: It's a good thing we just saved an entry. On this issue, like every other, the Romney campaign will want two. That wouldn't be fair, so we've filled out Mitt's brackets by hand. The teams he has winning the first round go on to lose in the second, then miraculously come back to win in the Sweet 16, only to lose in the Elite Eight and make the Final Four. He takes Boston College over Brigham Young in one semifinal, then changes his mind and has BYU beating BC in quadruple-overtime in the final.
John McCain: If Romney's slogan is the same as Ernie Banks' ("Let's play two!"), McCain's ought to be the same as Avis: "We're No. 2—we try harder." We let him keep most of his picks but gave him every No. 12 seed in the first round and sent every second seed—not first—to the Final Four. He'll thank us when UCLA beats Georgetown for the championship.