By the time John McCain trundles into the ballroom of the Fairmont hotel in Dallas, he has already had what for most men his age would have been a very full day. He has met the press at a Mexican restaurant in San Antonio. He has held a town-hall meeting at a barbecue joint in Houston. He has fielded yet another question about the “North American Union,” the latest conspiracy theory from the nutters who brought us the New World Order. He has uttered the salutation “my friends” at least 40 times. And, oh yes, he has won the Republican primaries in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont, dispatched that holy-rolling goober Mike Huckabee back whence he came, and secured his party’s nomination for president of the United States.
So McCain is feeling pretty chuffed when he mounts the stage with his canary-yellow-suited, Barbie-blond gal, Cindy. The crowd before him is measly by Barack Obama standards, just a few hundred people, but it’s plenty loud and lusty. The confetti cannons are loaded and cocked, the balloons pinned to the ceiling.
Out in the audience, Mark Salter and Steve Schmidt look twitchy. The goateed Salter is McCain’s chief wordsmith; the shaven-headed Schmidt his mouthpiece. Through experience, the two men have learned that prepared addresses are not McCain’s best friends—and teleprompters his mortal enemies. On a good day, McCain merely looks shifty when he’s reading off a prompter, as his eyes track the flowing text; on a bad day, he stutters, stammers, yammers, making him seem … well, let’s not go there.
As McCain begins to speak, Salter and Schmidt position themselves so they can see both their boss and the giant flat-panel on the camera riser directly in front of him. The speech is short. It’s going smoothly. McCain is nearly done. “Their patience,” he is saying of the American people, “is at an end for politicians who value ambition over principle, and for partisanship that is less a contest of ideas than an uncivil brawl over the spoils of power.”
And then … Oh, shit!
The screen goes blank!
McCain is flying blind!
Up onstage, McCain wears a mask of misery. He shuffles some papers, blinks, smiles tightly, checks the prompter repeatedly. Schmidt and Salter, eyes bugging, heads swiveling, are in full panic mode. Ten seconds pass. Then 20, then 30, then 40 without a word from McCain. The crowd cheers and chants, filling up the dead air that threatens to throttle him on national TV—until suddenly, voilà, the text reappears and McCain picks up where he left off. Salter shakes his head. Schmidt shrugs and mops his brow. Soon they’re tapping away at their BlackBerrys as if nothing momentous had occurred, let alone a near-death experience.
By the standards of the McCain campaign, of course, nothing momentous had occurred. Less than a year ago, the Arizona senator really was kaput—or so some of us geniuses thought. His operation was broke, his poll numbers anemic, his team in tatters, his image muddied and muddled. But today McCain stands as good a chance as any of the remaining runners of being the next resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His approval rating, according to Gallup, is 67 percent, as high as it’s ever been. In head-to-head matchups, he runs roughly even with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and his prospects seem to brighten each day that the rancorous contest between his potential rivals rumbles on. “The Democrats are destroying themselves,” says GOP strategist Alex Castellanos, who recently signed on with McCain. “They’re engaged in killing Obama. It’s like killing Santa Claus on Christmas morning—the kids won’t forget or forgive.”
That McCain’s political resurrection owed as much to the weakness of the Republican field—not to mention blind shithouse luck—as to his talent and grit makes it no less remarkable. Yet for all the hosannas being sung to him these days, and for all the waves of fear and trembling rippling through the Democratic masses, the truth is that McCain is a candidate of pronounced and glaring weaknesses. A candidate whose capacity to raise enough money to beat back the tidal wave of Democratic moola is seriously in doubt. A candidate unwilling or unable to animate the GOP base. A candidate whose operation has never recovered from the turmoil of last summer, still skeletal and ragtag and technologically antediluvian. (“Fund-raising on the Web? You don’t say. You can raise money through those tubes?”) Whose cadre of confidantes contains so many lobbyists that the Straight Talk Express often has the vibe of a rolling K Street clubhouse. Whose awkward positioning issues-wise was captured brilliantly by Pat Buchanan: “The jobs are never coming back, the illegals are never going home, but we’re going to have a lot more wars.” A candidate one senior moment—or one balky teleprompter—away from being transformed from a grizzled warrior into Grandpa Simpson. A candidate, that is, who poses an existential question for Democrats: If you can’t beat a guy like this in a year like this, with a vastly unpopular Republican war still ongoing and a Republican recession looming, what precisely is the point of you?