Back to the Front

Illustration by Darrow

John McCain’s media guru, Mark McKinnon, was wearing a shit-eating grin when I ran into him in a parking lot in Salem, New Hampshire, two days before that state’s primary, amid a heaving throng of cameradudes angling to get some B-roll of his boss. Back in July, when McCain’s campaign was imploding, I had snarked in this space that to envision the senator’s winning the Republican nomination required ingesting “half a bottle of Maker’s Mark, followed by a nitrous-oxide chaser.” So it wasn’t surprising that the first thing out of McKinnon’s mouth was an offer of a good, stiff bourbon. (Regarding the nitrous, apparently, I was on my own.) Sheepishly, pitifully, I muttered a mea culpa. “That’s okay,” McKinnon replied. “You ain’t the only one who got it wrong.”

Forty-eight hours later, the voters of New Hampshire validated McKinnon’s optimism, turning McCain into his party’s de facto front-runner: the Phoenix from Phoenix. Indeed, among Republican politicos, the view is that McCain is now sitting prettier than most people realize. That with a victory in either of the next two primaries—in Michigan on January 15 or South Carolina four days later—he will assume a commanding position in the race. That the GOP Establishment will rapidly close ranks behind him, putting him on an unobstructed glide path to the nomination.

Trust me when I tell you that I’ve learned my lesson when it comes to underestimating McCain. And, no doubt, the above scenario is entirely plausible. But it also strikes me as underestimating a number of salient factors: the strength of Mike Huckabee’s populist appeal in a pair of states where economic issues are likely to loom large; the discomfort that McCain has always exhibited when running ahead of the pack; the possibility that, despite appearances, Rudy Giuliani isn’t dead and buried yet. And it assumes the fractured GOP electorate is capable of acting pragmatically in its own best interests—an assumption for which this election cycle has provided little evidence.

The McCain resurrection in New Hampshire was, no question, a remarkable thing to behold. Six months ago, the extent of his meltdown was so severe that he was mired in fourth place in the state behind Mitt Romney, Giuliani, and, yes, even Fred Thompson. But by December, McCain, back to waging a guerrilla campaign, had scrapped his way into the lead. In the days before the primary, the sense of nostalgia was palpable: the Straight Talk Express crisscrossing the snow-banked byways, McCain cracking wise and holding forth, the hack pack huddled around him, lapping up every word. His town-hall meetings were jammed to the rafters, his wit, spontaneity, and candor on vivid display. “You’re still in purgatory,” said one independent voter, who questioned McCain’s devotion to fiscal discipline. “Thank you,” replied McCain. “That’s a step up from where I was last summer.”

A Giuliani victory in Florida would keep the Republican race alive until Super-Duper Tuesday.

McCain is openly superstitious: In New Hampshire, he carried with him his lucky penny and lucky compass, and not only stayed in the same room in the same hotel as he did in 2000, but slept on the same side of the bed. And his triumph in New Hampshire owed much to a series of unexpected and fortuitous developments. The apparent, however limited, success of Bush’s troop surge in Iraq, which McCain loudly supported. The crippling downfall of Romney in Iowa at the hands of Huckabee. Even the rise of Barack Obama, whose widening lead in the pre-primary opinion polls may have caused some independents to swing to McCain, on the theory that their votes would be more consequential in the Republican contest.

McCain seems poised to benefit from good fortune again in Michigan. Because the state moved up the date of its primary in defiance of the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Obama will not be competing there, giving independents and conservative Democrats every incentive to take part in the Republican primary. In 2000, these two voting blocs made up an astonishing 60 percent of the total turnout in the GOP race in Michigan—and propelled McCain’s defeat of Bush there. If something similar happens again, McCain will be on a roll, and, the argument goes, scores of party regulars will rush to his side.

The concept of McCain as the candidate of the Republican Establishment may cause some minds to reel, but there are already signs that it may become a reality: On the eve of New Hampshire, 100 alumni of the Reagan administration—including George Shultz, Alexander Haig, and Iran/contra pardonee Robert McFarlane—trumpeted their endorsement of McCain. What makes him attractive to such people despite his transgressions against Republican orthodoxy is crystal clear. As McCain spokesman Steve Schmidt put it bluntly in New Hampshire, “He is the most electable of all Republicans.” Though one Democratic strategist licked his chops when I mentioned the prospect of a McCain-Obama matchup—“It would be the future versus the past, change versus more of the same”—the septuagenarian senator would compete fiercely with his younger rival for independent voters, and would be able to play far more effectively the experience card that Clinton has employed against him. And having been carpet-bombed by Bush in 2000 and Romney this time around, he’d be well prepared to handle the brass-knuckle brawl into which a race against Clinton would surely turn.

Moreover, McCain, being from a border state and having championed immigration reform, stands as the only Republican who could go toe-to-toe with either Democrat in the battle for the Hispanic vote, which was key to Bush’s reelection in 2004 and on which 2008 may turn. “With any other Republican, you’re looking at a potential collapse for the party among Hispanics,” says Simon Rosenberg, the head of the Democratic advocacy group NDN. “But McCain would make the electoral map a lot tougher for Democrats.”

Yet McCain’s stance on immigration is a good place to start in applying some skepticism to the theory that he is on the march to the nomination. This was the issue that caused him to lose so much altitude last summer, and it still puts him starkly at odds with the GOP-primary electorate. And, of course, it’s not the only one. There’s taxes: Only McCain and Thompson have refused to sign a pledge not to raise them. There’s global warming: McCain insists that it’s not a fantasy dreamed up by Al Gore. And then there’s McCain-Feingold, the mention of which still makes blood boil on the right. The Republican Establishment may be willing to overlook these apostasies and focus on electability. That the rank-and-file will do the same is far less certain.

Further complicating McCain’s situation is the Huckabee phenomenon. The best pure political performer in the Republican field, the former Arkansas governor could do surprisingly well in Michigan, where his admixture of aw-shucks Christianism and pseudo Main Street economics may appeal mightily to, respectively, the Evangelicals and conservative Catholics in the western part of the state and to the fabled Reagan Democrats in places such as Macomb County. And the showdown between Huckabee and McCain in South Carolina will be a close-run thing, with the Arizonan fighting off not only Pastor Huck’s Christian soldiers but the demon-memories of his immolation there eight years ago.

If McCain does win both Michigan and South Carolina, the nomination will almost certainly be his. But if he doesn’t, he may well end up in a steel-cage death match with our former mayor. Reports from the trail of the demise of Giuliani have been exaggerated—though not by much. The day before the New Hampshire primary, I went to see him at a town-hall meeting in Merrimack; the crowd was tiny, sleepy, and Giuliani’s performance gave new meaning to the term “phoning it in.” In the end, despite having held more events in New Hampshire than any Republican save Romney, he managed to secure just 2,000 more votes than Ron Paul.

In Florida, however, Giuliani is running balls-out, aware that it could be his last stand. Here you have a state where money matters more than skill at retail politicking. And Giuliani has used his financial advantage to build an organization that McCain cannot hope to match. (McCain, for example, has no serious absentee-ballot program in Florida, whereas Giuliani’s campaign expects to rack up thousands of votes before Election Day.) The party’s economic-conservative wing is rallying around his recent promise to propose, on his first day in the Oval, the biggest tax cut in history. And Giuliani may be able to harvest the support of a blue-haired brigade of New York retirees residing in the Sunshine State.

A Giuliani victory in Florida would, of course, keep the Republican race alive until Super-Duper Tuesday, February 5. And then who knows what would happen? As McCain’s dreadful, halting victory speech in New Hampshire proved, he is not the most TV-friendly candidate of the lot—and February 5 will be an air war almost exclusively. The former Republican senator Rick Santorum told the Times the other day, “I don’t see how we don’t come down to a convention that is going to decide this thing.” In a normal election year, this kind of talk would be rightly dismissed as ludicrous, fantastical. In a normal year, McCain would cruise to the GOP nomination; it is, after all, his turn. But 2008 is anything but a normal year—as the past two weeks have demonstrated in spades, and as McCain knows better than anyone.

The 2008 Electopedia

Our ever-expanding guide to (almost) everything you need to know about the presidential candidates—starting with New York hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.


Back to the Front