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Is John McCain Bob Dole?

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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.


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