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?
The morning after McCain clinched the nomination, I hopped onboard his campaign jet and flew with him to Washington, where he was scheduled to have a congratulatory lunch with George W. Bush. (The menu? Hot dogs.) During the flight, standing in the aisle, I asked Schmidt—who channeled his ferocity on behalf of Bush in 2004, Dick Cheney in 2005, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006—how McCain planned to deal with his infamous “100 years” remark about Iraq. “We trust the American people to be able to figure this out,” he said in a tone, combative and stagy, that called to mind vintage James Carville. “We don’t think the American people are stupid. Do you think they are stupid?”
Well, to be honest, sometimes yes and sometimes no—but that, as Schmidt was well aware, is beside the point. Equally irrelevant, in the end, is the argument raging between the McCain and Obama camps over the proper and fair interpretation of the sound bite in question. What’s pertinent to the race ahead is that McCain has been unwavering in his commitment to keeping U.S. troops in Iraq for an indeterminate period of time. And that this stance puts him on the wrong side of the public on one of the two central issues on which the general election is likely to turn.
“For the past year-plus, the public has said they want to change our policy and they want to get out, and McCain has put himself squarely in the status quo corner,” says the pollster Peter Hart. Indeed, according to a new Gallup survey, voters favor setting a firm timetable for troop withdrawal by a margin of 60 percent to 35 percent. “There’s no way the public is going to say, ‘Well, we’re going to reassess things now that we see it from McCain’s point of view,’ ” adds Hart. “His difficulty is that the public has figured this out.”
McCain’s difficulties may be even more pronounced on the second pivotal issue: the economy. During the New Hampshire primary, McCain blurted out the domestic equal of his “100 years” gaffe: “The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should; I’ve got Greenspan’s book,” he said, though he later allowed that he had yet to crack its spine. In time, McCain would contend that he was just being momentarily glib; that he may be no economist, but he has a firm grasp of the subject. Yet repeatedly over the years, McCain—a former chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, mind you—has said things strikingly similar, to everyone from The Wall Street Journal to David Brooks.
Even the most loyal Republicans express concern about McCain’s economics gap. “He’s never been particularly fluent in or showed much intellectual interest toward economic matters,” says Pete Wehner, who ran the Office of Strategic Initiatives in Bush’s White House. “Can he speak fluently or compellingly about them? We’ll soon see. But it would require him to lift his game.”
Problematic as McCain’s lack of economic fluency may be, it’s only part of what plagues him. Another is the substantive ground he occupies. “People don’t realize that he’s Bush II on economic policy,” says Mike Podhorzer, the deputy political director of the AFL-CIO. “When we tell people in focus groups where he is on health care, Social Security, and the minimum wage, they are shocked. And they immediately say, ‘I have to reconsider what I think about him.’ ”
Painting McCain as Bush’s twin will obviously be central to the Democrats’ strategy this fall regardless of whether Obama or Clinton wins the nomination. As Hart notes, “McCain’s single greatest weakness is that many voters believe he will be part and parcel of the policies that Bush has promulgated.” Podhorzer, for his part, is already at it, having recently launched a union-financed effort designed to label him a “Bush McClone.”
No sane person would assume that such efforts will be a slam-dunk, given that McCain’s media-amplified image runs counter to the notion that he’s a clone of anyone, let alone 43. “McCain has that reformist, maverick history that people identify him with,” says Bush’s former media guru Mark McKinnon, who now plays the same role for McCain. “They know he’s not a typical Republican and has had his issues with the president over time, so they don’t see him as in bed with the president or the Republican Party that they believe has in recent years come to represent the status quo.”
The evidence buttressing McKinnon’s assertion isn’t hard to locate. Among independent voters, according to Gallup, McCain leads Obama by a spread of 42-29 and Clinton by 48-23. And an even more striking sign of his crossover appeal was cited by Karl Rove in a speech he gave last month in Washington. “About twice as many Democrats support McCain as Republicans support Obama, and about three times as many Democrats support McCain as Republicans support Clinton,” Rove said. “The media is all wired up about these ‘Obamacans’ … but the real story of this election is the ‘McCainocrats.’ ”
The question is whether McCain’s maverick persona, which is deeply rooted in his renegade run in the primaries eight years ago, will hold up under scrutiny. For as it should be clear to anyone paying even cursory attention, McCain 2000 and McCain 2008 are very different mammals—as evinced by his toadying to Jerry Falwell, his flip-floppy embrace of Bush’s tax cuts, and his failure to offer any kind of substantial reform agenda this time around.
Then there’s the fact that many people at the highest levels of McCain’s campaign are lobbyists or the employees of lobbying firms. The list has included Schmidt, campaign manager Rick Davis, and one of his top strategists, the longtime K Street kingpin Charlie Black. Until recently, in fact, Black was being paid by his lobbying shop while he “volunteered” for McCain; his decision to step down from the chairmanship of his firm a couple of weeks ago—a development akin to Eliot Spitzer taking a vow of chastity—was designed to preempt criticism surrounding conflict of interest.
Even some Republican stalwarts are appalled at McCain’s coziness with the influence-peddling industry. “Can you imagine a bunch of people working for Halliburton trying to elect Cheney?” says a prominent GOP consultant. “How can that be legal? Even if it is legal, it’s never happened before. And it says a lot about what McCain has become. In 2000, he was the candidate of reform, of anger, of screw the system. Now he’s the candidate of lobbyists, endorsements, and special deals with Beltway banks.”
So if McCain is no longer the bracing iconoclast he was in 2000, who the hell is he?
“I’ll tell you,” this person says. “He’s morphed into Bob Dole.”
This was not my first encounter with the McCain-is-Dole meme. I had first run across it back in January, on the night of the final Republican debate, in Simi Valley, California, when McCain’s crabbiness and sarcasm onstage had prompted a former GOP player now tilling the corporate field to make the comparison over dinner. As it turned out, the idea was also being promulgated sub rosa by a number of Mitt Romney’s senior strategists. A few days later, on the morning of Super Duper Tuesday, it popped out of Mitt’s own mouth. “There are a lot of folks that tend to think maybe John McCain’s race is a bit like Bob Dole’s race,” Romney snarked on Fox News. “That it’s the guy who’s the next in line; he’s the inevitable choice and we’ll give it to him, and then it won’t work.”
Not surprisingly, McCain’s people push back hard on the suggestion that their guy might be Dole Redux. “I think that in many ways he’s very un-Dole-like,” retorts McKinnon. “He actually has really good strategic sense. He’s a very disciplined candidate in terms of delivering a message. And Dole restrained those things that people liked best about him. There’s a great side of Dole that we never saw. We’ll always see that with McCain.”
Certainly it’s true that Dole kept his sense of humor—dark, ironic, acutely subversive—largely under wraps when he was the Republican nominee in 1996. It’s also true that McCain makes no effort to suppress his comic sensibilities, which are not only similar to Dole’s but also to those of David Letterman, with whom he shares an affinity. Like Letterman and Dole, McCain is constantly offering a running sidelong commentary about himself and what he is doing, in the process winking, letting everyone know that, deep down, he considers it a bit of a sham. In New Hampshire, McCain routinely ended appearances on the stump by invoking Richard Daley’s timeless dictum “Vote early and vote often.” What other presidential candidate in history has ever left his audiences not with an applause line or a rousing crescendo but a cynical joke about politics?
As Neal Gabler argued recently in the Times, this is no small part of why McCain is popular with the press: He is the meta-candidate—and journalists have never met a meta they didn’t like. The question, however, is whether it’s the ideal approach to claiming the hearts of voters. Though Letterman is popular, Leno always thumps him in the ratings, after all. On the other hand, McCain’s propensities in this regard may be the best counterweight against his increasingly geriatric bearing. “It’s one of the few future-oriented things about him,” says Alex Castellanos. “He’s got that postmodern detachment and intolerance of bullshit that will keep you young forever.”
But few of the other likenesses between McCain and Dole can be spun so benignly. There’s the septuagenarian-ness (McCain is 71; Dole was 72 when he ran). There’s the physical frailty, courageously earned in war, that nevertheless serves as a constant reminder of his advanced years. There’s the legendary shortness of his fuse. (McCain has yet to have a full-on “Stop lying about my record” moment on the trail, but his testiness was on display the other day in a widely YouTubed confrontation on his campaign jet with the Times’s Elisabeth Bumiller.) There’s the firm conviction, as Time journalist Mark Halperin has noted, that “being on Meet the Press is more important than going to church—actually, that being on Meet the Press is going to church.”
These are all superficial things, you might say, and you’d be correct. But Republicans cite deeper, more worrying commonalities between McCain and Dole. “You’d fly around with Dole in 1996 and try to talk message, and all he wanted to know was who was going to be up onstage with him at the next event,” recalls an operative who worked for Dole in his pre-Viagra days. “Same deal now with McCain. He has no message outside of Iraq. What’s John McCain’s health plan? What’s his tax plan? What’s his high-tech plan? No one in a million years can tell you.”
Scott Reed, Dole’s campaign manager, doesn’t disagree with many of these parallels. “Can’t lift their arms above their heads, can’t comb their own hair—yeah,” he says. “Teleprompter-challenged—right.” But Reed points out a salient difference between 1996 and today. “What happened with Dole was that the Democrats were able to aim both bazookas at us,” he explains. “They took all their primary money and used it to create the Dole-Gingrich two-headed monster, and we were never able to get up off the mat. But the Democrats aren’t able to do that now. They may never be able to do it.”
Reed is right. For all the wailing and gnashing of molars among Democrats about the damage being done to Obama and Clinton by their prolonged primary tussle, the greater cost to the party may be the missed opportunity to unload on McCain this spring. To no small extent, presidential campaigns are battles that boil down to a pair of competing efforts to define the opposition. Were BHO and HRC not still endeavoring to hack each other to pieces with metaphorical meat cleavers, Democrats could be using their huge financial advantage to cast McCain in whatever mold they consider most damaging: Dubya II, Dole II, Attila the Hun II, whatever. But instead it’s the GOP that’s getting a head start in the definition derby—especially concerning Obama.
Back in November 2006, a few days after the midterm elections, McKinnon and I were gabbing on the phone about the hopemonger’s rise. “I think Obama would be a real interesting candidate,” he said. “And if it’s McCain-Obama, that’s a real win-win for the country. There’s this great documentary on Barry Goldwater, and it reveals that he and JFK were having conversations about how, if they were the nominees in 1964, they were going to jump on a plane and campaign together around the country—go from city to city, debating each other in a respectful way. Which is a really interesting idea, and just the sort of thing you could see McCain and Obama doing. Wouldn’t that be great?”
“In 2000, he was the candidate of reform, of anger, of screw the system,” says a Republican consultant. “Now he’s the candidate of lobbyists, endorsements, and special deals with Beltway banks.”
McKinnon isn’t your typical political mechanic or your standard-brand Republican. Until 1998, in fact, his résumé included only clients of the Democratic persuasion—and not just any Democrats, but the likes of Michael Dukakis and former Texas governor Ann Richards. Even after two presidential campaigns in the service of Bush, he remains a sensitive soul. So I wasn’t totally surprised when he declared, “I’m gonna tell McCain that if Obama is the Democratic nominee, I’m not gonna work against him; I’m just not going to make any negative ads against Barack Obama.”
A noble sentiment, to be sure, and a pledge that McKinnon continues to insist he intends to honor—though many of his friends suspect he’ll find it hard to abandon ship when the moment of truth arrives. But it’s not a widely shared feeling in the McCain campaign or the GOP writ large. If Obama is the nominee, you can bet the mortgage money that there will be no happy-pappy fly-arounds. (For one thing, McCain gives every indication of regarding Obama the same way that Clinton does: as a flyweight, a line-cutter, and a preening neophyte.) No, the GOP campaign against the Land of Lincolner will be unrelentingly brutal.
The contours of that campaign are already coming into view—and not just by studying the early maneuvers on the Republican side. “Our strategy will look a fair amount like the one that Hillary is running against him now,” a party official says. “It’ll build on two things: first, that he’s way too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief, which not only polls incredibly well but has the virtue of being true; and, second, that he’s way too liberal.”
When it comes to experience, Republicans believe the contrast between McCain and Obama will be plain to see, and much more meaningful that it has been in the Democratic race. When it comes to liberalism, they invariably cite National Journal, which concluded that Obama had the most left-wing voting record in the Senate. “Is there any chance the Republicans would ever nominate the guy who’s furthest to the right?” asks Reed. “Everyone throws around the L-word like it’s a scarlet, but there’s something there.”
In the standard Republican playbook, charges of excessive liberalism are typically employed to suggest that a Democratic candidate is a pansy. And, no doubt, the party’s assault on Obama will include insinuations of limp-wristedness, especially compared with McCain in the national-security arena. But Republicans have other objectives in mind, too, when they harp on Obama’s purported left-wingedness.
For a start, they wish to associate him with a static, backward-looking creed. “Obama’s a fantastic candidate in the sense that he understands that this could be a New Frontier election,” Castellanos says. “So we need to take some of the future away from him, and it won’t be hard to do. He talks a great game, but his policies are old-style, Democratic, industrial-age stuff. We just need to rip the wrapping off and show that there’s nothing in the box.”
Similarly, by calling Obama a liberal, the Republicans are impugning his character by calling him a phony. In his recent speech in Washington, Rove, after pummeling Obama as a liar (for what he sees as various biographical embellishments), a would-be tax raiser, and a surrender primate on Iraq, lit into him as a fraud for his pretenses of post-partisan leadership. “During the three years he’s been in the Senate, anytime there has been a big bi-partisan effort”—on judges, terrorist surveillance, war funding, immigration—“where was Senator Obama on any of those big fights? I’ll tell you where he was. He was over there up against the wall, ironically watching everything go on and voting ‘no.’ ”
Naturally, the Republicans’ attempts to define Obama as too liberal will extend to the cultural realm. They will portray him as elitist, effete—highlighting Harvard, Hyde Park, and his gutter balls on the bowling lanes of Pennsylvania. They will tar him as arrogant, pointing to the helpful comment once coughed up by his wife: “Barack is one of the smartest people you will ever encounter who will deign to enter this messy thing called politics.” (Deign to enter?) And, no doubt, they will slam him as insufficiently patriotic, calling attention to everything from his eschewal of an American-flag lapel pin to his failure to put his hand over his heart during the national anthem at a campaign event in Iowa.
Patriotism will also be the Republican entry point into the combustible realm of race. No one close to McCain believes that he intends for his campaign to exploit or exacerbate the black-white divide in any explicit way. But nor does anyone believe we’ve heard the last of the controversy over the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Already a group of conservative activists have posted to YouTube a video splicing together his most incendiary comments with shots of Obama and backed by beats from Public Enemy. Expect more from the shadowy world of 527s that disgorged the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
It would be comforting to dismiss all this as the desperate flailing of a party in decline. But there are signs that the areas Republicans intend to target may prove soft targets. The pollster Scott Rasmussen tells me that Obama is already trailing McCain among white male voters by a whopping margin of 57-33—and that in both swing states and others, such as Virginia, that Democrats hope to capture, there has been “significant deterioration for Obama” and “a dramatic change in McCain’s favor” since the Wright imbroglio erupted.
What makes these developments all the more disconcerting, of course, is that they’re taking place even before the GOP has sunk its teeth into Obama. Not long ago, I’m told, Bill Clinton was talking to a friend about his wife’s rival and made an interesting observation. The way Republicans beat Democrats, he said, is by turning them into caricatures—citing John Kerry, Al Gore, and Dukakis as examples. The reason that he, WJC, had survived is that he’d aggressively labored to deny them the opportunity. He’d been able to say, wait a minute, I don’t fit in the box you’re trying to stick me in. The problem with Obama, Clinton went on, is that he’s tailor-made for the container that the Republicans are devising in which to bury him.
Now, Clinton is hardly a disinterested observer here. Quite the contrary. And it’s worth pointing out that his wife ain’t exactly immune from caricature; the Republican cartoon of her is as vivid and damning as a Thomas Nast rendering. But the argument that Obama would be more easily crated than Hillary is really the only argument that her campaign has left to sway the remaining undecided superdelegates—though the way her people talk about it isn’t usually so blunt.
Instead, they prefer to speak about the electoral map. What they will tell you privately is they believe that if Hillary were the Democratic nominee, she could be confident of holding all the states that Kerry won in 2004, and she’d be well positioned to carry Ohio, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arkansas as well. Obama, by contrast, in their judgment, would find it impossible to win either Florida or Ohio. Because of his difficulties with blue-collar whites, he would also be hard-pressed to hold Michigan—turning Virginia, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico into must-have states. Could Obama carry all four versus McCain, a western senator with environmental cred and an aversion to federal spending? Not bloody likely, the Clinton people claim. Thus Hillary’s electability argument in a nutshell.
Castellanos agrees that Clinton would be a tougher opponent for McCain than Obama would be—but says it has little to do with the map. “We don’t want the Clintons in a general election,” he says. “It’s bad for America, and they’ll win.” Why? “The Clintons don’t show up at a knife fight with a gun; they show up with a missile launcher. I hope the Democrats put a stake in her heart now, or we will regret it soon.”
Yet most Republican operatives believe that Obama, even with the Wright millstone draped around his neck, would be a more formidable challenger than Clinton, and their reasons boil down to three.
First, if Hillary were to win the nomination, the process by which she got there would likely hobble her. “If Hillary pulls this off, she will have undoubtedly alienated the African-American vote,” Scott Reed says. “And she’ll definitely have higher negative ratings than any politician in America.”
Second, they point to the money—Obama’s unholy capacity to amass it, that is. “By September 1, Obama could be raising $2 million a day,” says a well-known Republican media savant. “That would enable them to do network-TV ad buys, which no one has done in a serious way since 1976. They could be putting up 500 points a week in places like Texas, Louisiana, Georgia—while McCain is doing nothing. That’s an ugly world.”
Finally, it remains the case that having Hillary’s name on the ballot may be the only thing that would motivate the party’s base to turn out in big numbers for McCain. “There’s no doubt Obama is a less appealing figure to Republicans than he was five weeks ago,” says Pete Wehner. “But Obama is not radioactive to Republicans the way Hillary Clinton is—and whatever opposition Obama elicits from the GOP, it won’t be on the same intensity scale as that of Senator Clinton. Right now the Clintons are, to much of the GOP, in a category all their own.”
In the end, of course, this conversation will almost certainly prove academic. With each passing hour, the Democratic nomination slips further from Clinton’s grasp. On my most recent visit to the campaign’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, it seemed for the first time that reality was setting in. Staffers were bandying about future plans—plans that didn’t involve the West Wing. “That’s what you do at the end of a campaign,” one senior adviser said—a tacit admission the end was now in sight. As I headed for the elevator to leave, I ran into chief strategist Mark Penn. “Hiya,” Penn said, and then ambled on toward communications director Howard Wolfson’s office.
The next morning came the story in The Wall Street Journal breaking the news of Penn’s fateful (and fatal) powwow with the Colombians, which must have occurred within hours of when our paths briefly crossed. And I realized that what I thought I heard as “hi” must have been a “bye.”
On March 31, McCain set off on his weeklong “Service to America” biography tour. I caught up with him on the third day in Annapolis, Maryland, where he was slated to speak at the U.S. Naval Academy, which he entered as a plebe in 1954. After leading the pledge of allegiance at a local diner, where scrapple-scarfing patrons huddled in booths beneath a sign that read delicious pancakes, maple syrup, margarine, he arrived at a grander setting: the Navy football stadium. But no throng of midshipmen-cum-McCainiacs surrounded the candidate at the rostrum. In front of him instead were 60 folding chairs, occupied by wizened dignitaries; behind him were 35,000 seats, occupied by no one.
His speech that morning, like the others on the tour, sought to explain how a callow, shallow hellion became a man of honor. At the academy, McCain said, he was “childish” and prone to “petty acts of insubordination.” But then came the horrors he suffered in Vietnam, and the lesson Annapolis had sought to teach him took hold. “It changed my life forever. I had found my cause: citizenship in the greatest nation on Earth.” But McCain’s next sentence—“What is lost, in a word, is citizenship”—sounded like a non sequitur, and that’s because it was. Incredibly, once again, the teleprompter was at fault: It had devoured a page of his script. (Memo to McCain HQ: Hire new tech support!) But this time there was no drama: McCain just soldiered on through.
At the end of the tour, McCain’s consiglieri declared it a success. “It was open-field running for us,” McKinnon wrote me in an e-mail. “While the Democrats continued to attack each other and claw their way to the bottom, McCain was able to communicate a positive message and create a compelling narrative about the values he learned growing up that make him best-qualified to be president.”
In truth, McCain’s message reached precious few. The press coverage of the tour was perfunctory when not derisory. (Jon Stewart dubbed it the “Monsters of Nostalgia Tour,” cracking that it had “all the allure of an Atlantic City senior citizens’ outing without all the awkward sexual tension.”) “It was a missed opportunity,” says a Republican strategist with experience running a presidential campaign. “He didn’t say anything. He didn’t drive a message. He should have been making news every day hammering Obama’s weaknesses. That Annapolis speech was ridiculous. The empty football field? What genius thought that was a good idea? The way you do these deals is you plan to drive a headline, a picture, and a story—it’s a simple acronym, HPS. That’s how you design every day on a national campaign. But I guess they missed the memo.”
McCain’s organization has been ramping up far too sluggishly in the eyes of some professional Republicans. Though its high command—the so-called Sedona Five, which consists of Black, Davis, McKinnon, Salter, and Schmidt—is well regarded, it seems stretched too thin. “It’s a skeleton crew over there,” said the same strategist. Astonishingly, the campaign has just four full-time finance staffers and no significant online buck-raking presence. In March, it reportedly raised just $4 million over the Web and through direct mail.
When it comes to media and strategy, however, the campaign is nearly at full speed. A best-and-brightest collection of Republican admen has been pulled together, and, maybe more significant, talent from Bush World is beginning to migrate into McCain Land. The former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman is now an informal adviser. Former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully is onboard as well. There are even rumors that Rove, the Architect himself, is funneling ideas through the pipeline. “There’s no official/formal relationship with Rove,” McKinnon e-mailed coyly. “Karl is on Fox a lot. We watch a lot of Fox. Karl has become an open-source consultant.” But one of the savviest Karlologists I know suspects that Rove is providing a steady stream of advice through multiple points of contact with the campaign and the national party.
The specter of another Rovean election will surely give countless Democrats a severe case of the heebie-jeebies—and it should. Obama’s difficulties winning downscale whites (and especially white men) are real and potentially of enormous consequence. Some of this can be blamed on the Clintons, just as some will be attributable to whatever mischievous and malign race-baiting is practiced by Republicans this fall. Some must be laid at the doorstep of Obama and Pastor Wright. And some to the racism that, much as we might wish otherwise, remains alive in the land. But however one chooses to apportion blame, what’s now quite clear is that Obama is unlikely to turn many red states, or even many purple ones, blue. The prospect of a landslide looks remote, especially against a candidate whose biography will be powerfully appealing to exactly the constituencies with which Obama is most vulnerable. “We do electoral-college projections, and over the past few weeks, every shift we’ve made has been in the Republican direction,” says pollster Rasmussen. “A month ago, the Democrats were clearly favored. Now it’s a pure toss-up.”
A wealthy Democratic donor of my acquaintance likes to say, “Sometimes panic is the appropriate reaction.” But for Democrats, this is not that time. Judging by almost any meaningful metric, the current political topography strongly favors the party this year. Unless Obama foolishly gets shamed into accepting public financing—and trust me, the Obama people are no fools, and they have less shame than you’d imagine—he will be the proverbial Mr. Universe at the beach, kicking sand in McCain’s face when it comes to advertising and the ground game. His positions on the issues are more popular than McCain’s. He can’t be blamed for Bush’s war or Bush’s recession. He is young and vibrant and inspiring, whereas McCain is not and not and not.
And indeed, McCain’s age may prove as a big hurdle for him as Obama’s race is for him. According to Peter Hart’s polling, 29 percent of voters say that America isn’t ready to elect a president in his seventies. And among the groups who register even higher percentages of concern are women, midwesterners, and blue-collar voters. One of the central challenges that McCain will face is to prove that he isn’t past his sell-by date, just another doddering member of the shuffleboard set. Watching him move through the world—a rickety little man with tiny, clawlike hands, barking out staccato platitudes—I often think of the day in 1996 when I watched Bob Dole take an errant step and fall off a stage in California, an accident that sealed his image as more AARP than C-I-C. The same danger is forever lurking for McCain.
Back in New Hampshire, McCain announced one day that he might be just a one-term president—an utterance that was variously described as an unfortunate slip or another demonstration of his refreshing candor. Please. What McCain was doing—a risky move, but not a crazy one—was not just trying to assuage concerns about his age, but turn them to his advantage. “He’s got to position himself as the right guy for right now, the guy with the maturity to lead in an uncertain world,” says Castellanos. “He can’t be the candidate of the future, but he can be the candidate of the present who will keep you safe and give you a shot at the future.”
And, hey, who knows, it might even work, for history tells us that political contests between the present and the future are always close-run things. The trouble is that McCain is no longer a man of the moment we currently share—he’s an advertisement for the past. And in a contest between yesterday and tomorrow, tomorrow usually has the upper hand.
Additional reporting by Michelle Dubert.