McCain’s ’08 Dilemma: Can He Recapture the Magic He Once Had?

by Stuart Rothenberg June 28, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

Here’s a bit of unsolicited advice for Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign (which has plenty of smart people and doesn’t need my advice): Try to get back to McCain’s story.

It isn’t news that McCain’s campaign is staggering under the weight of weaker-than- expected fundraising and poll numbers, criticism from conservatives who don’t trust him, the Senator’s immigration and Iraq positions, and the perception that he’s just another politician.

I know plenty of people who a year ago told me that McCain was the odds-on favorite for the GOP nomination but now say the Arizona Senator’s White House bid is flat-out dead. They aren’t saying it’s tough for him to win the Republican nomination or that he’s an underdog. They are saying he is finished. Kaput.

They may be right, but I’m not quite willing to say that yet. The Senator will need terrific second-quarter fundraising numbers to reverse that talk, and until we see those numbers, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Too many of us wrote off Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) too early in 2003, and I’d prefer not to repeat that mistake. From my view, it’s better to be a little late jumping on the “McCain is toast” bandwagon than to jump on it and find out that he’s made a phoenix-like recovery.

Anyway, I was reminded the other day about the one thing that’s missing from the national coverage of the 2008 McCain campaign that was so prevalent during the coverage of his 2000 White House bid: His life.

As I watched McCain in Iowa and New Hampshire eight years ago, I was struck by how many veterans were in his audiences, and how real people talked and related to him. They saw him as a true hero. Given the recent media coverage of Paris Hilton and the late Anna Nicole Smith, plenty of Americans might well like to hear about a true hero.

Whatever Rudy Giuliani’s, Mitt Romney’s and Fred Thompson’s strength and appeal — and each certainly has some — McCain stands head and shoulders above them in terms of service to country and personal story.

Giuliani’s image as a crime-busting former U.S. attorney and post-9/11 New York City leader has more resonance than Romney’s Mormon or Olympics storyline or Thompson’s lawyer/Hollywood story, but only McCain is a Vietnam prisoner of war who was tortured and returned home a hero.

During his previous run for president, McCain was defined by his campaign and the national media as an outsider and reformer, which followed naturally from his reputation as a maverick in the Senate, his support for campaign finance reform and fiscal responsibility, and his role as adversary of the Republican establishment’s preferred candidate, George W. Bush.

But this time, McCain has been defined by his positions on two controversial issues, immigration and the Iraq War, as well as his associations with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) on campaign finance and immigration, his wooing of major party fundraisers and social conservatives, and his age.

McCain continues to talk about many of the things that he did in 2000, including ethics, wasteful spending and national security. And his Web site includes his bio and photographs from the Vietnam era. But things have changed for McCain, in part because the coverage of him is so unlike what it was and in part because the GOP field is different.

McCain has tried to be the conservative candidate, while Giuliani challenges him for party moderates, as well as those wanting a candidate who projects strong leadership on the war against terror. The mayor and Romney (add to them Thompson soon) are fresher faces, at least in a presidential race, than is McCain, and voters always seem smitten with the new guy, at least for a while.

Eight years ago, McCain was the messenger of change, and he’d certainly like to be so again. But it’s hard to retain that role over so many years, and McCain’s age only makes it more difficult for him to connect to voters as the agent for change.

Four years ago, everyone was talking about military experience and personal character, two of McCain’s great strengths. Now, those McCain assets are largely ignored by the media and candidates.

After re-reading this column, even I’m wondering why I don’t write off the Arizona Senator. Is it merely because I believe that he’s gotten a raw deal by his party? Maybe. Here’s a guy who has spent the past few years giving the McCain seal of approval to dozens of lesser Republican candidates and defending the Bush agenda in Iraq (though certainly not all of the president’s decisions), and yet many in his own party still distrust — no, despise — him.

No. It’s that McCain still has a talented team, the second-best GOP organization in Iowa, considerable strength in New Hampshire (which he won in 2000) and about as many warts as each of the other Republicans in the GOP presidential race. But his campaign obviously isn’t going well now, and there is no guarantee it will recover.

McCain may not be able to reinject his personal story of heroism and service into the national media coverage of his campaign or excite people the way he once did. His military record may be old news to too many people. But his campaign needs to find a way to make John McCain more than just a Washington, D.C., insider and Senator, and his personal story and heroism should be more of an asset now than it is.