McCain’s plain asset

Next month is the one-year anniversary of the death of John McCain’s front-runner presidential campaign. That his vaunted, establishment-backed effort grew moribund and rendered him a political corpse, and that victory was attainable only through humility and grit, is a lesson that should forever haunt McCain and his entire staff. Yet watching him kick off the general election last week, it was clear some on Team McCain may have forgotten this.

McCain’s comeback last fall began with one suitcase, a few dollars and a willingness to offer voters nothing but conversation. There were no staffers, no well-lit stages, no banners and no commercials. McCain thought it was enough, and so did the voters. When the momentum, morale and money picked up as a result, McCain was able to win. It may have resembled reincarnation, but it wasn’t. McCain was not a different candidate, he was himself.

Against Barack Obama, who has made history as the first African-American to clinch his party’s nomination for president and whose oratorical skill has also made history, McCain must stay that same man who fought back in the dark days in New Hampshire; otherwise, he will lose. As he withered against that disturbing green backdrop in Kenner, La., last week, it was clear that packaging McCain for political life will surely doom him to defeat.

Choking out a line mocking Obama’s campaign slogan, “That’s not change we can believe in,” McCain got that food-poisoning look on his face. He grew increasingly miserable as he repeated it seven times throughout the speech.

McCain’s staff must forgo the festoons and just leave him be. He can’t do gimmicky refrains, and can’t speak before thousands in stadiums. He can’t play basketball, he can’t wear nifty outfits, and he can’t dance with locals.

McCain can go on Jay Leno and David Letterman because he is funny. And he can meet with any foreign leader anywhere because he is presidential. More importantly, to many Americans, his persona is as powerful as Obama’s words. As a war prisoner in Vietnam, McCain had to summon courage in a way most of us are certain we never could. In politics he has, with ease, made friends with the enemy and made enemies of friends. He waged a second fight eight years after losing the GOP nomination to George W. Bush in 2000, and when the bottom fell out last year he refused to run away. McCain is afraid of nothing, which should frighten anyone running against him.

In fact, if Obama’s campaign staff got beyond the bad visuals and listened carefully to McCain’s speech, then they are aware of the strong challenge they face. The gimmicky refrain and tortured delivery belied an otherwise great speech, with a message tailor-made for independent voters and disaffected Democrats. Not only did he remind voters of his numerous differences with President Bush, but of his personal sacrifice as well, saying the American people have “seen me put country before any president — before any party — before any special interest — before my own interest. They might think me an imperfect servant of our country, which I surely am. But I am her servant first, last and always.” McCain also spoke of costly healthcare, job loss, rising gas and food prices, failing schools, disappearing pensions and endangered entitlement programs and acknowledged that “your government often acts as if it is completely unaware of the changes and hardships in your lives.”

Essentially, McCain is not Bush, and he is pretty good at explaining why. He is also good at explaining that he has experience and a proven bipartisan record, and Obama does not. It doesn’t translate when McCain looks anguished, but if he can be himself, voters will hear this message. Many of them, including Clinton voters who aren’t especially fond of Obama, will like it.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.