Dramatic though it was, the McCain staff shake-up is likely to have close to zero effect on any of these factors. So what happens now? It seems to me that there are two broad scenarios, neither of them pretty.
The first scenario is that McCain’s campaign collapses ignominiously before the end of the year. For all practical purposes, his operation today is broke, and with the stench of death now shrouding the endeavor, the reluctance of donors to whip out their checkbooks is certain to become even more acute. In a startling burst of candor, Warren Rudman, the former Republican senator from New Hampshire who serves as McCain’s national campaign co-chairman, raised this very specter last week. “If he doesn’t recover financially and in the polls by the fall, it will be very difficult for him to continue,” Rudman told the New Hampshire Union Leader. (When your campaign co-chair starts using the conditional when speaking of your survival, you know that you’re in deep caca.)
McCain’s early exit, naturally, would reshuffle the Republican deck. The most obvious beneficiary would be Giuliani: His social liberalism might appeal to moderates still wedded to McCain—and his increasing bellicosity on foreign policy (please note the recent addition of Norman Podhoretz to his roster of advisers) might attract those who venerate McCain’s militarism. Fred Thompson, too, assuming that he enters the race and adopts a hard-line posture on national security, might benefit similarly. And while Romney, whose gathering potency in Iowa and New Hampshire have arguably made him the new front-runner, might reap the fewest migrating voters, the extinction of the McCain opposition-research squad, which has sought relentlessly to poison Romney in the press, would surely be seen as a welcome development by Mr. Headroom.
The second scenario is that McCain survives until January through a combination of creative financing, bare-bones operations, and a root-and-branch strategic rethink. On the money side, the campaign has said it’s considering accepting federal matching funds for the primaries, which would immediately bring in $6 million and up to $21 million total. And rumors are circulating that the campaign intends to shift its focus to New Hampshire (the site of his upset of Bush in 2000) and South Carolina (with its large population of veterans), while forgoing Iowa, which McCain skipped last time around and where he’s currently weakest.
For McCain to have any prayer of resurrection will require more than this sort of retooling, however. It will require him to resuscitate his previous image—and for voters to buy it. “Maybe he goes back to the tiniest New Hampshire high-school gym he visited in 1999,” posits Schnur. “One of McCain’s greatest strengths is his willingness to admit mistakes. He may be the best apologizer in American politics. So he acknowledges the obvious. He says, ‘I’ve been trying to be somebody I’m not. Now I’m starting over.’ ”
The troubles with this scenario are many and glaring. If McCain does accept public money, his campaign will be bound by state-by-state spending restrictions—many of which are so tight that they would put him at a daunting disadvantage. (The limit for New Hampshire would be a mere $818,000.) Skipping Iowa would increase the chances of a Romney victory there, which would in turn make him all the more formidable in New Hampshire. Then there’s the matter of whether McCain’s new campaign chief is cut out to run a guerrilla operation. In 2000, Weaver often railed about the bureaucratization and sclerosis endemic to McCain headquarters. He dubbed the place “the Pentagon”—and Davis was its SecDef. “Rick is good at many things,” says a Republican strategist who knows him well, “but insurgencies are not among them.”
Even on the most optimistic reading, what this scenario envisions, in essence, is McCain as the Republican John Edwards: a candidate placing all of his chips on a single state (in McCain’s case, New Hampshire; in Edwards’s, Iowa) and hoping that a victory there will create sufficient momentum to carry him through the others. If you’re in the mood to be Panglossian, you might observe that although being the Republican Edwards plainly is not ideal, it’s conceivably better than being the new Bob Dole—the role that McCain seemed destined to play had he maintained his front-running status.
For more than a few Republicans, no doubt, the fall of McCain is a cause for rejoicing. But I wonder if they’ll feel that way when all is said and done. McCain’s flaws are real enough, but no one can dispute that he’s a serious man, with serious ideas, who would have seriously changed the GOP, a party in a serious state of crisis. Nothing similar can remotely be said of what remains of the Republican top tier. McCain’s marginalization leaves them all floating, weightless, barely tethered to reality, short of ideas and gravitas, let alone convictions. I suspect that they will miss him more and sooner than they now know.