The battle lost, McCain fights on

The news that Texas congressman Ron Paul, the GOP’s Don Quixote, had more cash on hand at the end of June than the once-inevitable John McCain said it all. The Arizona senator was the odds-on favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination a year or so ago, but now he’ll be lucky if he doesn’t crash and burn before the first real contests in early 2008.

As he entered the race for his party’s 2008 nomination, McCain’s assets as a candidate seemed to far outweigh his liabilities. Republicans have a tradition of rewarding those who have hung around and run before. McCain has done both and worked mightily over the last few years to make up for any bad feelings remaining within establishment GOP and conservative circles for his dust-up with George Bush in 2000.

Moreover, his earlier quasi-romantic run for the White House endeared him to many, as did his status as a legitimate American hero who had sacrificed much for his country. Thus, as he began putting together his campaign this time it was clear that he had the largest personal following within his party. He attracted the money people who opposed him last time, and there were even rumors that White House “insiders” were cheering him on.

He hired a Bush veteran to run his campaign and adopted as his own an updated but essentially unchanged version of the plan that worked so well for his predecessor. It assumed that as the front-runner and perceived “inevitable” nominee, McCain would, like Bush before him, vacuum up every hard dollar available, reject public matching funds, and blow his opponents out of the water with ease. The very law he championed in the Senate to reform campaign finance practices was about to benefit him as it had Bush — who, some will recall, signed it into law in part because his political aides assured him that he could raise more hard money than anyone and thereby benefit from the constraints it imposed on his opponents.

It didn’t work out quite as McCain planned, however, for a variety of reasons, but mainly because in addition to his formidable assets, he entered the fray with some real and perhaps insurmountable problems. Many Republicans simply don’t like him and wouldn’t even consider supporting him — and there may be more of them than McCain admirers within the party. The average voter might not care much about McCain-Feingold, his signature accomplishment in the Senate, but conservative and GOP activists do and wanted nothing to do with the man they saw as spearheading an attack on their rights.

And there were other issues that made it difficult for Republicans to relate to McCain. There was global warming and most of all immigration and his penchant for getting into pictures whooping it up with Teddy Kennedy and other liberals with whom he liked to partner. It was all pretty off-putting.

And then there was Iraq. Media analysts are explaining McCain’s demise as a consequence of his steadfast support for Bush in Iraq, but that has hurt him not with GOP primary voters so much as it has with the media itself. He may or may not be right about Iraq, but his courage in standing up to his media constituency to stand by his commander in chief may be the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal campaign.

Ill-conceived campaigns that fall disastrously short of their goals are inevitably torn apart from within as everyone involved blames everyone else; McCain’s has been no different. The folks attracted to the political wars are among the most competitive you can find anywhere and are prone in times of crisis to turn their guns on each other.

The one thing every candidate knows is that his or her campaign’s failures are the fault of the hired guns. At some point, these candidates listen to those who suggest that if they — rather than the folks who’ve served the candidate so badly — are put in charge, they will be able to put things back together. This rarely happens after the inevitable shake-up. The new crew takes over a vessel taking on water faster than they’ll ever be able to bail and are themselves either put over the side by an increasingly frustrated candidate or forced down with the ship they have managed to commandeer.

John McCain says he will battle on, and he will because he’s a fighter, but his war has already been lost.


Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.