One of the enduring mysteries about the implosion of John McCain's campaign for the 2008 Republican nomination is why his highly paid handlers thought they could take a candidate to whom maverick has been so often applied that it's a cliché and package him using the most traditional, by-the-book formula for winning the Republican nomination. His campaign staffers even refer to their operation as McCain 2.0, as if this McCain were a new and improved product. But in fact, the original version would have seemed far more suited to a political climate in which dissatisfied voters believe the country has taken a turn in the wrong direction and are looking for someone who promises to upset the old, established order of things. What's more, in overhauling their candidate's image, his advisers took away the power of the McCain brand. "They managed to take a guy who has one of the great, compelling stories, who had a clear lead, who managed to raise $24 million," says Republican pollster David Winston, expressing a dismay that many of McCain's admirers are feeling about the wreckage of his campaign. "They've left this guy with virtually nothing."
Now the McCain campaign is struggling to recover from a spectacular and desperate shake-up that includes the departure of John Weaver, the longtime strategist who has often been thought of as McCain's Karl Rove, and campaign manager Terry Nelson. The combination of extravagant spending and lackluster fund raising has left the operation in a dire situation. Well over half the 120-member team has been let go, and the campaign's once flush field operation in the crucial early states of Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire has shrunk to a mere handful of aides.
The political equation has always been out of balance. As George W. Bush had done eight years before, McCain lined up an all-star roster of big Republican names behind him, selling them mostly on the argument of his inevitability. As a former aide put it, the candidate who had been so compelling in 2000 as a reformer and an outsider offered only one story line this time: "We're going to win. Jump aboard." The problem with this strategy was not just that the rank and file of the party didn't find McCain's conversion credible; the flaw was that the strongest argument for McCain's electability was his high approval rating among independent--and even Democratic--voters. And those warm, fuzzy feelings toward McCain vanished the moment he put on the suit of the Republican Establishment.
In fact, the most serious blow to McCain's quest for the nomination may have come in the spring of 2006 when he lost the Daily Show vote. McCain's candor and wicked sense of humor had made him a favorite of host Jon Stewart as well as audiences tired of politics as usual. But that night McCain had just accepted a speaking invitation from Jerry Falwell, the same Falwell he denounced in 2000. "Are you going into crazy base world?" Stewart demanded. "I'm afraid so," McCain sheepishly replied.
The Arizona Senator has also been hurt by sticking with one of his traditional strengths: stubbornness. Over the past few election cycles, it has become political gospel that voters reward conviction, even if they don't agree with a candidate's specific position on issues. As McCain has learned this year, voters--and donors--are willing to take that only so far. McCain's refusal to budge from his long-standing advocacy of giving illegal immigrants a path to legal residency has proved to be one apostasy too many for the Republican base. Meanwhile, McCain's support for the unpopular Iraq war and Bush's increasingly discredited surge strategy have alienated the independent voters who had found him so attractive in 2000. McCain acknowledges that his support of Bush's policies on immigration and Iraq "probably can be trouble." But he adds, "I always have to do what I know is right ... [A]t the end of the day, I hope that I will be respected."
At this point, the assumption of electability rests with the current Republican front runner, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, a candidate whose willingness to buck the party gives him crossover appeal--and bears similarities to McCain, circa 2000. Meanwhile, Democrat Barack Obama has staked a claim to the 2008 version of McCain's 2000 theme of running as a high-minded alternative to traditional partisan politics. That has left McCain, who will turn 71 next month, looking old and tired by comparison.
Another paradox is the rancor his campaign now aims at the group McCain used to jokingly refer to as "my base": the national news media. Privately, top aides complain that the reporters who swooned over the straight-talking candidate of 2000 have contributed considerably to his current difficulties by dwelling on the campaign's problems and parsing his every statement for hypocrisy and calculation. But the truth is, years of fawning coverage may have left his team unprepared for the scrutiny that goes with being a front runner. (The campaign denied my last request for an interview with McCain, citing a story I had written in December as having been too harsh on the candidate.)
McCain insists he has no intention of abandoning his campaign. Starting with a swing this weekend through New Hampshire, the state of his greatest triumph in 2000, he will try to get back on his feet by slashing costs, narrowing his focus to a few key states and--most important of all--returning to what got voters excited about him in the first place.