WASHINGTON — How did Sen. John McCain, the onetime front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, come to this?
New polls this week showed support for him plummeting in two key early-voting states. Tied for fifth place in Iowa, with 6 percent. Falling to fourth place in South Carolina, with 7 percent. Mason-Dixon Polling & Research conducted both polls of likely Republican voters, which had error margins of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
This after an ongoing Senate debate on immigration that highlights McCain’s opposition to his party’s base on a hot-button issue, and the informal entry into the race of former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who shot ahead of the Arizona senator in state polls and several national surveys.
McCain also is trying to recover from disappointing first-quarter fundraising, which prompted a reshuffling of his finance operation.
“McCain’s campaign has sunk like a rock,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Fundamentally, Republicans do not trust him and they don’t like him. When you don’t like someone or trust someone, you’re not going to nominate him for president.”
A McCain spokesman dismissed the polls and said the campaign’s organization in the states surveyed was strong enough to ride out the “peaks and valleys” of a long campaign.
“Mason-Dixon polling in Iowa and South Carolina in no way resembles any other polling done by anyone in either of those two states,” spokesman Danny Diaz said. “It in no way reflects reality.”
That’s unlikely; Mason-Dixon polls of key states in 2004 and 2006 proved to be remarkably close to the elections’ final results.
“I can see how the McCain campaign would be disappointed in these numbers,” said Larry Harris, principal at Mason-Dixon. “But just look at our track record on accuracy.”
The health of McCain’s campaign will get another measure in 10 days, with the end of second-quarter fundraising. McCain had said he hoped to improve on his third-place finish in the first quarter, when he raised $13 million.
Diaz wouldn’t say how much the campaign has raised so far or what its goal is. But McCain has dropped most public campaigning this month to focus on fundraising in private meetings around the nation.
“We expect to do better than we did last quarter,” Diaz said. “We’ll have the resources we need to run the campaign.”
McCain was perceived as the Republican front-runner for much of the past two years, and the 2000-campaign insurgent systematically wooed party regulars this time around in his drive to succeed President Bush. Yet he apparently hasn’t captured the imagination of many Republican voters.
“I cannot think of anything that’s going to keep McCain current or new,” said Don Aiesi, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. “What’s new that he’s saying that will keep a base constituency together? ... You can’t get anywhere if you’re perceived to be in single digits.”
“On immigration, when Ted Kennedy’s your best friend, that’s a problem,” said Bruce Gronbeck, the director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Media Studies and Political Culture.
Immigration also helps remind Republican voters of their other disagreements with McCain, the so-called “loose cannon” who championed campaign-finance revisions that many conservatives oppose and criticized some Christian conservative leaders in 2000 as “agents of intolerance.”
Even McCain’s embrace of the Iraq war may be backfiring. While Republicans are more supportive of the war than Democrats are, recent polls show that they’re growing weary of the Bush administration’s approach. More than any other Republican candidate, McCain has tied himself to Bush’s troop “surge” strategy as the key to success in Iraq.
Other Republican candidates support the war but are less enthusiastic about Bush’s strategy, so they “have more wiggle room for more options,” said Kimberly Conger, a political scientist at Iowa State University.
That’s all helped to dampen enthusiasm for McCain’s campaign, opening the door for Thompson, whose presence near the top of polls coincides with McCain’s drop.
“Thompson’s popularity is a good counterpoint,” Conger said. “We don’t really know what he thinks about a lot of issues, but many Republicans see him as the great white hope. McCain may be too well known at a certain level. We all know where he stands. ... They can’t project what they like onto him.”
There are still seven months before the voting starts. McCain partisans note that the hottest Republican candidates are all over television: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with paid ads in Iowa and New Hampshire; Thompson with free media nationwide due to his long flirtation with running and his celebrity as a movie and TV actor.
“When McCain goes up on TV, there’ll be a lot of ebbs and flows. ... He’s got plenty of time to show a lot of strength,” said Tom Cope, an Iowa lobbyist who’s advising the McCain campaign.
“There’s always a chance a candidate can reinflate,” Sabato agreed, citing the case of John Kerry in 2004, whose campaign had been widely given up for dead in the summer and fall of 2003. “The difference is Democrats didn’t know John Kerry. Republicans do know John McCain.”