What Would a Maverick Do?

Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio

In the end, it’s the middle-aged housewife who gets to him. On a blistering June day north of Phoenix, John McCain, short and sprightly in a baby-blue gingham button-down, has been harangued repeatedly by an antiwar demonstrator during his town-hall meeting. A couple of hours earlier, he’d had to stand red-faced while a transsexual woman made a speech about a nondiscrimination bill in Congress (“I’ll go back and review it again,” he said stiffly).

Then, during an event in a YMCA recreation facility in the suburb of Carefree, he can’t hold it together anymore. A woman takes a paper from her purse and begins reading McCain’s own concession speech from the 2008 election. After he was beaten by Barack Obama, the senator from Arizona promised “to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences.”

“That was your words,” says the woman. “I was very heartened when I heard these words, and my question is: ‘What happened?’ ”

Blinking rapidly, McCain develops an expression like a grenade about to detonate.

“Simple,” he snaps. “This administration has decided to govern from the far left without any consultations or negotiations or any compromises to be made with the other party!”

His supporters applaud, and McCain’s face twitches. “You know how many times I’ve been asked to go over to the White House to negotiate on any issue?” he asks, not waiting for an answer. “Zero,” he says with a huff. “Zero.”

McCain ends the exchange with a starkly disingenuous “Thanks very much,” the smirk on his face doing nothing to conceal his annoyance. “Next time,” he says, “please bring another speech.”

It has been a very strange season in the political career of John McCain. The former maverick who once fought his own party on everything from tax cuts to torture, who built a reputation as a prickly independent, now marches in lockstep with his party, from his objection to Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court appointment to his support of a draconian new immigration law in Arizona that would have repulsed him three years ago. When Newsweek asked him whether a maverick would take such positions, he responded that he’d never considered himself a maverick. It all seemed to defy logic.

But did it really? For John McCain, being a maverick always meant following different and contradictory scripts, according to his whim and the political realities of the moment. Long dependent on advisers to harness and manage his political energies, McCain has never resolved an inherent contradiction in his brain trust, between Rick Davis, a veteran lobbyist who helped McCain win the Republican nomination, and Mark Salter, the speechwriter who single-handedly crafted the maverick image of McCain from the early aughts. Both represent distinct parts of McCain’s psyche, the former McCain’s instinctual need to survive and fight, the latter his need for honor and dignity in the Washington snakepit (it was Salter who wrote McCain’s concession speech). And both have served him well. But this year, as McCain has been gripped by fear of political mortality, one of the voices in his head is, increasingly, drowning out the other. In a sense, the campaign he’s running is a continuation of his presidential campaign, the same battle on different ground. And though for the nation the stakes are much lower, for one man—John McCain—they are even higher.

In the spring of 2009, Nevada senator Harry Reid approached John McCain with a message, ostensibly from President Barack Obama.

“If you put an immigration bill in, we’ll get behind it,” Reid told McCain, according to a person briefed on the conversation.

McCain, who’d failed to pass an immigration bill co-sponsored with Ted Kennedy in 2007, and was roundly whipped by his own party for the attempt, was infuriated by the offer. “Me, put a bill in and he’ll get behind it?” McCain asked. “Why doesn’t the president put a bill in and I’ll get behind it?”

In a world where the economy was in turmoil and populist anger was percolating, Obama’s suggestion looked to McCain more like an invitation to political self-immolation, especially in Arizona, where McCain faced a reelection campaign in 2010 with a volatile electorate sliding toward tea-party politics. The exchange stoked lingering feelings over all that had happened in 2008: the economic collapse that stole his thunder, the bickering in his campaign, the press’s abandoning him, how the choice of Sarah Palin threw his judgment into question. He sees Obama less as the leader of all the people than a man who beat him, with a few lucky breaks. “He’s angry at Obama, at former staff, at his family life, at his fellow Americans,” says a veteran Republican strategist who has worked closely with McCain. “He’s angry.”

1988. Photo: Ron Edmonds/AP

From the first, there has been a sense of urgency in this campaign that was absent from his presidential run. McCain told friends early on that he didn’t want to “go out like Barry Goldwater,” his Arizona predecessor in the Senate, who barely eked out his last reelection bid. Though no credible candidate had yet appeared to challenge him, McCain harbored a healthy paranoia. In addition to hiring a campaign manager in Arizona to keep tabs on the ground game, he retained the core of his presidential-campaign team, including GOP consultants Rick Davis and Charlie Black and veteran aide and speechwriter Mark Salter.

McCain’s fears began to materialize in the form of J. D. Hayworth, the former Arizona congressman turned right-wing radio-talk-show host, who began hammering McCain for supporting the bank bailouts, exploiting growing populist anger in Arizona. Hayworth galled the senator by mocking McCain’s radio advertisements on the air and naming him “Weenie of the Week.” It had the intended effect: “I’m sick of him bashing me on the air,” McCain groused to a staffer.

This past November, a Rasmussen Reports poll appeared showing Hayworth within two percentage points of McCain in a virtual Senate race. McCain was “freaked out,” says a person close to him, and he convened a meeting of his advisers. “Everybody’s head was on fire,” says the person, describing McCain as “nervous and jumpy.” Sensing his boss’s anxiety, Davis promised they’d take out Hayworth early and fast.

When McCain gets nervous, he speed-dials friends for advice. And that fall, he even called his former top strategist, John Weaver, to ask his opinion. Weaver and McCain had had a bitter falling out in 2007, precipitating the near collapse of his presidential campaign, after which McCain put Davis in charge. Weaver warned McCain that he should ignore Hayworth, that he was training too much attention on a guy who had only 30,000 listeners and appealed to a segment that would never vote for McCain anyway, namely the hard-core anti-immigration wing.

Weaver’s advice was far from unique. Even one of McCain’s oldest and dearest friends, his POW bunkmate at the Hanoi Hilton, Orson Swindle, advised McCain to “just ignore him. That was my idea.”

But McCain needed to train his ire on someone. And though Hayworth hadn’t officially announced he was running, McCain’s people agitated for an FEC complaint over Hayworth’s alleged abuse of radio airwaves to promote a political run, hoping to intimidate him. Grant Woods, a lawyer and now senior adviser on McCain’s campaign, thought it was rash and advised McCain to wait and see if they could privately dissuade Hayworth from running instead.

“Many of us thought there would be some value in trying to explore at least some kind of détente, try to keep him out of the race in some way,” says Woods. “John was never of that opinion. He basically wanted to punch the guy in the face from day one. And nothing’s changed.”

Some of McCain’s friends questioned the advice he was getting from his D.C. advisers, Davis and Black. “He makes emotional decisions,” says a GOP strategist who has worked closely with McCain. “If he says, ‘I want to do X,’ they’re like, ‘Let’s go do X on steroids.’ It’s exactly what he does not need.”

But there was something more than just McCain’s pent-up anger at work. Many in Arizona point to another factor: McCain’s pent-up money, over $20 million left from his failed presidential bid. That account could be used to fund millions in TV and radio ads in Arizona and, depending on the arrangement, McCain’s advisers could also profit. J. D. Hayworth, a loudmouth who angered and disgusted their boss, was someone to spend it on.

By training his firepower at Hayworth, McCain gave him credibility he might not otherwise have had, which many see as a strategic blunder. When Hayworth announced he was leaving his radio show, McCain was so high-strung he couldn’t even listen, having an aide relay sound bites as they came over the radio. “Go back and listen,” he said, sitting alone and speed-dialing for advice.

By setting himself up against Hayworth, McCain was locked into a fight for the tea-party vote—essentially a race to the right, one in which McCain would be hobbled by his past positions. There was intense internal debate among McCain’s advisers in the fall of 2009 about whether McCain should even appear at a tea-party rally. McCain’s chief of staff, Mark Buse, was terrified of McCain getting booed off the stage and having the image go into cable-TV rotation. Until March, his advisers repeatedly refused to let McCain appear at one.

The most complicated decision McCain had to face involved his own political Frankenstein monster. Until the fall, McCain wasn’t sure Sarah Palin, his political creation and now a catalyst for the tea party, was going to be politically advantageous for him. When asked by an adviser to reach out to her last summer, McCain growled that “it’s not the right time.” And as her book, Going Rogue, was about to launch in November, it looked like it might be too late. When asked by advisers to recruit her in the fight against Hayworth, McCain complained, “She won’t even return my calls.”

2010. Photo: Shawn Thew/EPA/Landov

That’s because a feud was boiling between Palin and McCain’s former advisers from his presidential campaign. In a conference call the week before the book hit stores, McCain urged former advisers like Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace not to fight Palin in public, fearing a media spectacle would taint his chances. Davis said it would only help her sell more books. Salter, a close friend to Schmidt, urged McCain to show support for his former colleagues in the face of Palin’s allegations. McCain, convinced he needed Palin, was trying to avoid Salter’s calls four days before the book hit stores. “He’s going to yell at me,” he complained to aides.

Faced with a conflict between loyalty and strategy, the past and the present, McCain wasn’t just avoiding a media feud. He was about to finish dismantling the carefully constructed political identity Salter had been nurturing over the last decade.

An Iowa native with the brooding mien of a black-Irish poet and an abiding love for tragic literary heroes, Mark Salter began as a freelance speechwriter for McCain in the late eighties. Dubbed by politicos as McCain’s “alter ego,” he took a central role in McCain’s life when he co-wrote the 1999 McCain memoir, Faith of My Fathers.

In that book and the 2002 follow-up, Worth the Fighting For, Salter helped create a narrative arc from McCain’s patrimony as the son of Navy admirals, through his horrific POW internment during Vietnam, to his humiliating role in the Charles Keating savings-and-loan scandal and his phoenixlike resurrection, roping McCain’s haphazard life into a noble political profile.

His hallowed view of his boss, say friends, was rooted in Salter’s relationship to his own father, a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War. When a reporter once asked Salter about McCain’s modesty in how he discussed his POW years, Salter noted that it was “perfectly consistent with the way my father talked about his war experience.”

Salter was “almost like a son to John,” says Orson Swindle. “He’s very protective of John, perhaps to a fault. He’s extremely smart and obviously a good writer.”

But McCain didn’t necessarily see his own life the way Salter did. In fact, McCain’s writings from the seventies admitted to almost no personal change after his release from prison, as he appeared to repress emotional fallout and instead famously flew to Rio a year after his release because you “have a better chance of getting laid,” as he once told a fellow POW, later divorcing his wife to marry the wealthy blonde heiress Cindy Lou Hensley. A military psychologist, examining McCain after his five-and-a-half-year imprisonment, concluded that he had a “histrionic pattern of personality adjustment,” meaning he needed attention.

But Salter’s McCain was how McCain wanted voters to see him and how he needed to see himself: as dignified and honorable, a man worthy of his forefathers. The book transformed him into a kind of Washington contradiction: a politician for whom offhanded gaffes only improved his integrity, more barnacles on the romantic old battleship. McCain even seemed to get a pass on calling the Vietnamese “gooks” 25 years after Americans were evacuated from Saigon.

“For an extended period of time, he was the most popular politician in America,” says a former McCain adviser who admires Salter. “And the person, above all others, who was most responsible for it was Mark Salter, period.”

Salter worked hand in glove with McCain’s longtime strategist, John Weaver, a rangy Texan who encouraged McCain’s independent streak and built political strategy to fit Salter’s mythmaking. But in 2007, as McCain was preparing to run for president for the second time, Weaver became ensnared in an intense battle with a competing McCain adviser, Rick Davis. After a series of fights over the direction of the campaign (with Salter attempting to moderate on behalf of Weaver), Weaver lost a power struggle and left the campaign in disappointment, a major crack in McCain’s universe.

And Salter’s. It was the first time his idealized conception of McCain, a man for whom loyalty was supposedly a paramount virtue, was seriously tarnished. Salter wanted McCain to get out of the race gracefully, but McCain didn’t take his advice. Instead, McCain regrouped and appointed Davis, a man more interested in winning than in McCain’s soul, his new campaign manager. Though deeply rattled by the experience, Salter decided he’d come too far to quit.

“It was hard for me to leave,” says Weaver. “In hindsight, it was probably harder for Mark to stay. Mark chose a different path. I’m not going to judge it.”

Davis helped McCain win the Republican primary. When McCain’s advisers converged on Sarah Palin as a running mate, Salter opposed the choice, fearing she would tarnish McCain’s image. But McCain’s come-from-behind nomination had solidified his faith in Davis, and Salter’s idea (Tim Pawlenty) was overruled.

The McCain Brain: Needs several different voices to keep sane.Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images (McCain); Wikimedia Commons (McCain's father and grandfather); Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images (Davis); Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images (Salter)

If the emotional fallout from the loss to Barack Obama was sublimated for McCain, it wasn’t so with Salter, who retreated to a cottage on the Maine coast and began a period of existential rumination over the direction of his life, say friends and associates. One Washington friend worried that he was falling “into this place of anger and sadness that he would not be able to get back from.”

After the chaos and dysfunction of the campaign, Salter made an important personal decision: He would continue to write speeches for McCain, and collect a check, but he would no longer fight McCain on political matters. He wanted to try his hand at writing fiction.

“There are fewer people who are willing to stand up and speak truth to power and tell McCain he’s being an asshole,” says an ex-staffer in McCain’s 2008 campaign. “And the chief person who did that is Mark Salter—and if you do that for long enough, you lose your capacity to fight. You’re totally exhausted by it.”

With Salter receding (and Schmidt and Weaver, both of whom had been committed to Salter’s vision of McCain, gone), McCain became a simpler creature. To a person, ex-advisers and staffers to John McCain describe the same man: Impulsive, emotional, dependent to a fault on the advice of others, but unwilling or unable to resolve infighting, he lets mismanagement corrupt his best intentions, winning elections and congressional victories almost despite himself.

“One thing McCain simply will not do is come down on one side or another when he’s got conflicts among staffers and advisers,” says a former adviser in Arizona. “That’s a bad problem.”

The presidential campaign had magnified these weaknesses, leaving a trail of wounded and disillusioned McCain aides who felt they’d seen the worst of American politics, the heart of McCain’s darkness. One former McCain insider says the election left a “cancer on their souls.”

The cycle of dysfunction continues even today: In May, McCain’s Arizona campaign manager, Shiree Verdone, left over internal disputes with Mark Buse, so irate that she refused for a time to take McCain’s phone calls. (Through a spokesperson, she declined to comment.)

“He’s angry at Obama, at former staff, at his fellow Americans,” says a strategist. “He’s angry.”

In the last three years, the one adviser who has survived, and even thrived, is Rick Davis. A veteran lobbyist and consultant known for jet-setting with his wealthy Russian and Middle East clientele, he is gregarious and sociable and easygoing, the opposite of Salter, the taciturn chain-smoker whose best friends are reporters. (Davis didn’t return calls.)

The choice of Palin as McCain’s vice-presidential nominee, encouraged and vetted by Davis, seemed to crystallize his influence, for better or worse. And as panic overtook McCain in early 2010, it would be Davis who channeled it into a tactical short game, advising him to co-opt Hayworth’s political turf by tacking into his positions, out-tea-partying Hayworth on immigration. Consequently, McCain’s Arizona tail wagged his Washington dog: McCain would soon reverse or greatly reel in his previous positions on torture, on cap and trade, on gays in the military, and, finally, crucially, on immigration. “Rick Davis carries the most influence with John,” says a McCain intimate. “Salter’s on the outside.”

Thus began the lurch to the right that has so captivated national media—the ones he used to call “my base”—and horrified the liberals who took McCain as an example of the right kind of conservative. But others defend him. “Does John McCain move around occasionally on issues?” asks Wes Gullett, a former McCain aide in Arizona and longtime supporter. “Yes. He’s fighting a fight. He’s a fighter. He goes to the sound of the battle.”

But McCain didn’t always like the sound he was hearing. An adviser in Arizona who knows McCain well says, “He doesn’t like doing what he’s doing.”

Which, for this person and several I spoke with, makes McCain’s transparent pandering all the more confusing: “If ever there was a political environment in which you want to be a maverick, this is it,” he says. “Why would he choose this time, with all the dynamics going on in the election, to deny what everyone knows is true? Sometimes he just checks out and you wonder what the hell is going on.”

McCain seemed to be wondering, too. When Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s old seat and agreed to campaign for McCain in Arizona, McCain could hardly believe he needed a political neophyte from the Northeast to help him draw crowds in his own state, especially one who had declined McCain’s invitation to campaign for him in Massachusetts (fearing McCain’s Establishment taint). After a rally at Grand Canyon University, McCain was annoyed when Brown tried giving him campaign advice while they drove in a car together. Three nights later, Brown and McCain were scheduled to have dinner, but McCain canceled.

But the Republican Party was emboldened by the Brown win. And in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, minority leader from Kentucky, conscripted McCain as a lead voice in the Republicans’ “Party of No” stance toward the Obama administration. In January, Harry Reid articulated what many observers were thinking: “My amazement has been John McCain. I thought he’d turn out to be a statesman, work for things. He is against everything.”

Last February, some McCain allies became concerned. Senator Lindsey Graham, perhaps McCain’s closest compatriot in the Senate, worried that McCain was undermining his reputation as a deal-maker by following in lockstep with McConnell. Graham asked John Weaver if he and Mark Salter could talk to McCain, according to a person briefed on the conversation. Weaver called McCain, this person says, urging him to “stay away from every time there’s an anti-Obama movement on the floor and they drag you out like some prop.”

A couple of days later, McCain called Weaver back and told him his advisers wanted him to lead in opposing health care. And McCain did exactly that, acting as a lead critic during Obama’s televised health-care summit in late February, where Obama chided McCain that “the election is over.” (“I’m reminded of that every day” was McCain’s retort.)

The exchange fanned McCain’s grievances over his election loss, and his legendary temper would occasionally flare up during his campaigning. McCain spokesperson Brooke Buchanan, who shadows him everywhere and writes his Twitter feed, would have to temper his rage when he came off as too harsh or bitter. During one event last spring, she told him, “You can’t do that, you’ve got to stop it.”

“Was I really bad?” he asked.

“Yeah, you can’t be that way.”

Then, in March, an Arizona rancher named Robert Krentz was shot and killed, allegedly by Mexican drug smugglers, igniting the immigration debate. Senator Graham says he realized right away that McCain was in trouble. “I said, ‘Oh, shit,’ ” says Graham. “This is just gasoline on a fire.”

Hayworth pounced on the border issue and began going after McCain’s past advocacy for immigrant workers.

McCain dove to the right, countering with a TV advertisement featuring himself walking alongside a popular Arizona sheriff, evincing concern about securing the border with a giant fence. “Complete the danged fence!” growls McCain, looking uncomfortable.

The ad was a disaster. Everyone knew McCain had never been a strong advocate of a fence, and his own campaign staffers felt he came off looking phony. But when anyone questioned the campaign’s course, McCain defended his new guru. “Rick Davis, the guy who got me the presidential nomination, you know him?” he’d snap sarcastically. “He knows everything.”

McCain hardly had time to think about what any of this was doing to his reputation. Weekend after weekend, he was driving from town hall to parade to VFW, greeting sparse crowds of 40, 50, 60 people, like he was stumping for his political life. “I didn’t work this hard in the presidential race,” he told an aide. “I can’t believe how hard I’m working.”

Desperate to hold on to his base in Arizona, McCain seemed intent on proving that his maverick days were behind him. His best chance presented itself in April, when the governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, signed the controversial Senate Bill 1070, which requires immigrants to carry papers showing their legal status and allows law enforcement to pull over suspected illegals. Salter was adamantly against it. In the past, when McCain came under pressure for his immigration stance, he told people he was a “big boy” and could “take it.” But with political heat rising, he reversed course. Blaming the federal government for lack of action, McCain embraced the law as the only thing left to do in fighting Mexican drug cartels run amok, even if statistics were showing that violent crime was down last year.

In May, Mark Salter left his home in suburban Virginia to spend the next five months—almost the entirety of John McCain’s campaign—holed up in a cottage in Castine, Maine, a quaint village on Penobscot Bay.

Salter rarely sees McCain anymore, as he readily admitted when I went to see him. While he once spent fourteen hours a day in McCain’s D.C. office as his chief of staff, he is no longer the last voice McCain hears before passing judgment on major issues, his input restricted to e-mails, conference calls, and the occasional phone conversations.

“I’m indebted to him,” says Salter. “I will be for the remainder of my life. Outside my marriage and the birth of my children, going to work for him was the most determinant of my life and the most beneficial. And nobody will ever accuse me of not being grateful.”

But Salter also seems to hang on out of financial inertia. He gets paid a $12,000 monthly retainer to write speeches and commencement addresses, something he can do in his sleep after twenty years, but it’s less than half of his income. As Salter well knows, McCain’s political life is winding down, and he’s already begun migrating away from McCain Inc. In addition to corporate speechwriting, he worked briefly with John Weaver on the gubernatorial campaign of Massachusetts independent Tim Cahill.

Friends of both Salter and McCain argue over whether Salter has entered his post-McCain life or McCain his post-Salter life. But nobody who knows him believes Salter is pleased with what’s happening. “He’s in a hard place now,” says a friend. “Because he knows what’s going on right now is not right.”

Salter, as a paid employee of John McCain for Senate, is obligated to disagree, and he does, strenuously at times. Though he admits that he and Davis are different, he says he hasn’t fought him. “I can’t think of any advice I’ve heard Rick give [McCain] that I have disagreed with,” he says.

“Does the John McCain I see yesterday seem to be a substantially different human being than I’ve known for 22 years?” he asks. “Nope.”

In defending the man he loves, Salter invariably blames the media: The press abandoned him as Obama shifted the entire political field to the left, making it look like McCain was a hardened partisan when, in fact, only his emphasis had changed, not his core positions.

“Nobody ever factors in the human dimension,” he complains. “[Politicians] are like everybody else: They try, they screw up a little, they’re lucky sometimes, they’re unlucky sometimes. They try again. Nobody takes it into account. There’s a motive to everything! Who lives their lives that way? It’s Hollywood.”

Salter, of course, invented a different Hollywood version of McCain, one in which McCain courageously resisted the tide when it wasn’t popular and bucked his own party on principle. And now that movie is over.

John McCain sits stock-still, eyes shadowed by his wiry eyebrows, hair combed down slick and straight, mouth turned down in grim resolve. On a stage in a high-school auditorium in Mesa, Arizona, against the backdrop of a 30-foot American flag, this is what a statue of Senator John Sidney McCain III might look like: Veteran. Hero. Maverick.

The problem is that he’s sitting next to Mitt Romney, who, at six foot two, towers over him like a tanned and gleaming giant. McCain looks like Ed McMahon to Romney’s Johnny Carson, quietly affirming whatever Romney says, nodding and mouthing the word “Beautiful” after Romney gives a soliloquy about the American spirit. McCain detested Romney in the 2008 primary, but now he needs his star power to draw the biggest crowd he’s had since Palin was in town. This is politics—this is how you win. But some have questions.

“There are two John McCains,” muses an old friend of the senator’s. “The one I love is a very big man, and he’s willing to take on big issues in a big way. Then there’s another side of John, he’ll admit, that is petty and angry and petulant and small, and that side has overtaken the other one.”

A former adviser, echoing the sentiment of a lot of McCain’s allies, feels Rick Davis has turned Mark Salter’s vision of McCain “into melted clay.” But advisers can only explain so much. In fact, there’s a case to be made that McCain hasn’t really changed at all—maybe saying he never considered himself a maverick is just another maverick move. And, for many reasons, losing is the most intolerable thing. In Faith of My Fathers, we learn that both John McCain’s grandfather and his father, John Sidney “Slew” McCain Sr. and John Sidney McCain Jr., did not fare well upon retirement. His grandfather expressed disappointment when told the Japanese had surrendered. “I feel lost,” he said. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know whether I know how to relax or not. I’m in an awful letdown.”

He promptly dropped dead on the living-room floor the day after he returned home in 1945. McCain’s father, who retired from the Navy in 1972, descended into despair and illness and died at age 70.

Friends of McCain say that in the recesses of his brain is a mortal fear of retirement. Engaging in daily battles is all he’s ever known. “Torture for John McCain is putting him on the burner and not letting him do anything,” says Lindsey Graham.

People who have spent years with McCain say he has always been emotionally remote, virtually alone even while surrounded by staffers. When he calls his own mother, he announces, “Hi, Mother, this is John McCain.”

And McCain has also begun thinking about his legacy. He recognizes, says a person who has spoken with him about it, that political life is fleeting, that he could one day be forgotten. It scares him. At this point, losing to J. D. Hayworth would be too much for McCain to bear, especially after all he’s sacrificed to prevent it.

“That’s no way to go out,” says Grant Woods, a longtime friend of McCain’s. “You don’t live the life he’s lived and lose to a goof like J. D. Hayworth.”

Ironically, both McCain’s opponent and his own supporters agree on one thing: If he wins, he’ll probably morph yet again, a lame-duck senator with nothing to lose, tacking left to reclaim his old mantle as a thorn in his party’s side. It’s what friends like Graham envision for him.

“What I hope will happen is that he’ll be the force against excess and the person who can find that common ground we need to have as a nation. That’s what I hope will happen, and that’s what I expect will happen.”

“Here’s the question for John,” Graham adds. “If he’s asked to support comprehensive immigration reform, does he support it?”

That’s anybody’s guess. But if Worth the Fighting For, McCain’s 2002 book, is any guide, it’s easy enough to imagine what he might say after November should he win reelection. In that book, McCain admitted that in the 2000 presidential primary, he’d supported South Carolina’s right to fly the Confederate flag against his own belief that it was a symbol of racism.

“I didn’t want to do this,” he says. “But I could tell from the desperate looks of my staff that we had an enormous problem. And that it could come down to lying or losing. I chose lying.”

What Would a Maverick Do?