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.”