by Kelley Beaucar Vlahos
December 27, 2007
By now, clichés to describe John McCain’s bumpy campaign have been exhausted. If it’s not the “slow death” of his candidacy, it is the “flat tire on the Straight Talk Express.”
But despite all the rumors of his campaign’s early demise, McCain is nothing if not steadfast in his goal to be elected president, and his tenacity could pay off.
In fact, “no surrender” has been the one-time POW’s new mantra, as well as the name of his latest campaign tour, replacing that old jalopy, the circa-2000 Straight Talk Express. Analysts say McCain’s efforts to turn his operation around just might work.
“There was a brief time earlier in the year where they were trying to make him into someone he wasn’t,” said longtime supporter Nathan Sproul, a Republican consultant in Arizona. “I think what he’s doing right now is exactly right.”
Bruce Merrill, a political science professor and pollster at Arizona State University, who did polling for McCain during his first run for Congress in 1982, said McCain’s late return to prominence is a classic performance by the Arizona senator.
“[McCain] says, ‘I screwed up and I’m going to go back to being John McCain.’ It’s a personality trait — he calls it the way it is,” said Merrill. “He perceived that going out of the blocks as the old establishment candidate wasn’t getting him anywhere.”
McCain, 71, has pulled into second place in the latest Boston Globe poll of New Hampshire voters, just three points behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In a nationwide FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll taken Dec. 15-16, McCain tied for second place against Mike Huckabee, with 19 percent. Rudy Giuliani was in first place with 20 percent in the poll of 900 registered voters. The margin of error was 3 percent.
Aubrey Immelman, a professor of psychology at the College of Saint Benedict & St. John’s University, said the four-term senator’s most convincing personality traits reveal not only an individualist and non-conformist, but a guy who doesn’t shy away from a challenge or tough opponent. He can be persuasive, but not overly driven by the need for power. He can, however, also exhibit a temper and doesn’t suffer fools for long.
Facing charges that he’s too old and too angry, McCain’s rock star status of eight years ago had dwindled over the year as he became more attached to the unpopular war in Iraq. Now that operations in Iraq are improving and voters aren’t giving it the same laser-focused attention, McCain has bounced back.
“Even when it was going poorly he said the way to turn things around is through this surge,” said Ken Vogel of the Politico newspaper. ”The surge is in effect and things are turning around. He never strayed from that never tried to adjust his rhetoric on it, and now it looks like the situation is kind of catching up with his rhetoric, and that helps him look like he is consistent, and that’s one of his selling points.”
Now, McCain faces the challenge leading up to the primary voting cycle of appearing both energized and in touch while still maintaining his “maverick” identity.
“John McCain running for president in 2000 was a guerrilla fighter — he was atypical, he was unique and he didn’t have the organization and firepower to withstand the low blows of the Bush people,” said Paul Green, a political professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, referring to what many analysts have long deemed a smear campaign by now-President Bush’s 2000 campaign operatives in South Carolina.
Now, said Green, “[McCain] has tried to become a George Bush and found he couldn’t fight with a regular army. Let John McCain be John McCain.”
His best personality traits, say supporters, have always been his pragmatism over ideology, his willingness to take a firm stand and not waver, even if it means political blowback. During the 2000 campaign, he was called “independent” and even an “outsider” despite having been in Washington for 20 years by that time.
“If you look at McCain’s record throughout the years, you see the track record of someone who has not always agreed with his party — or party leadership — but has always maintained his own identity,” said Matt Manfra, who is with the New Jersey for McCain effort.
Support for the Iraq war had tapped into voters’ concerns that McCain is no longer independent, just a Bush administration lackey. His campaign structure helped fuel that suspicion.
Some say McCain believed that if he brought on old Bush campaign aides and fundraisers, hired the media team that ran the worst of the ads against him, hired the bloggers who once scorned him and even sought the approbation of the religious conservatives he once criticized, he could establish himself early-on in the primaries as the establishment frontrunner.
McCain’s positioning only served to turn people against him, Merrill said. “All he did in the early campaign was lose the confidence of the more moderate Republicans,” he said, noting the religious right never warmed up to him. “He spent all his money on this establishment-type organization and he has nothing to show for it.”
Human Events political editor John Gizzi said McCain just “wasn’t the slim, barebones, grassroots guy that he was in 2000.” The fact the old McCain “stood up against the high-paid consultants with the blow-dried looks, made him attractive … whether he can get back to that I don’t know.”
Friends and fans sure hope so. McCain has cash and organizational problems after the first in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. He has said he may have to take matching funds, which come with spending caps, and that could all but cripple him heading into the Feb. 5 flurry of state races.
McCain admits retooling his campaign and earning enough cash to compete are his biggest obstacles, but he has maintained a loyal base of supporters that has supported McCain’s decision to buck his party on campaign finance reform, and speak out forcefully against the use of harsh interrogation techniques against detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
The issue of prisoner treatment is one McCain knows well. He spent five and a half years being beaten and tortured while a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
McCain’s perceived strengths are also his greatest challenges, said Erick Erickson, co-editor of RedState.org. Erickson points out that the very traits that made McCain a “maverick,” have turned off the Republican base, which demands party loyalty.
“His biggest problem is his force of conviction,” said Erickson. “He goes all out for it, and party loyalty and party majority be damned. (McCain), I think makes a great leader, but … he needs the party to get the votes.”
“I don’t think John McCain ever sticks his finger to the air to see where the wind is blowing; that’s not how John McCain operates,” said Sproul. “I think among contemporary politicians he is in a league by himself in that regard.”
McCain is still considered a “wild card” in the Republican presidential primary race, with poll after poll indicating that Republican voters aren’t leaning enthusiastically toward any one candidate. Craig Shirley, a Republican media strategist, said McCain has made some impressive steps of late.
“He’s got to play to his strengths,” like his longtime pet issue, pork-barrel spending and fiscal restraint, said Shirley. “He’s got the record on the domestic side, and of course, his strength on the foreign policy side. Stop listening to your consultants, and listen to your own intellect.”