You know the campaign of Republican presidential hopeful John McCain is having a tough go of it when its highlight this past week in New Hampshire was a showing of the film “Faith of my Fathers” at its Manchester headquarters. This biopic tribute from a few years back chronicles McCain’s moral and psychological trial under unimaginable fire as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for more than five years.
Such is the dilemma of McCain’s fall from grace as the top-gun GOP candidate — it’s become too much about the past, which is toxic for a political campaign. He has become too defined by his war-hero past and his maverick run against establishment dandy George W. Bush in 2000. And to many, unfairly or not, John McCain is a candidate with no future.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way when he launched his campaign with much fanfare in April at Prescott Park in Portsmouth. He had hoped to mimic the George W. Bush formula for success in 2000 by raising more than $100 million for the primary season. His campaign seemed not unlike that of Bob Dole in 1996 — a Republican who had paid his dues and whose time had come after primary setbacks in 1980 and 1988. McCain even brought on scores of former Bush political cadre after enthusiastically embracing Bush himself and making kiss-kiss nice with his former foes on the religious right.
But it was, at best, a terrible mismatch of candidate, resources and philosophy. Bush ran as an entitled prince and McCain is a pugilist, a boxer who likes to hit back against opponents real and imagined across the ideological divide.
Most of all, McCain has proven — at least to this point — that he is a serious and credible presidential candidate without a party, and it’s hard to imagine Jean-Paul Sartre coming up with a deeper and darker existential sink hole than that reality. He’s been on the wrong side of hot-button GOP issues such as immigration, campaign finance reform, and, for goodness sakes, even trying to provide a minimum of legal fiction to the disgrace that is Guantanamo Bay. For that, in this age of rigid GOP ideological purity in which some principled stands are not forgiven, the conservative McCain has been cast adrift.
It doesn’t matter that McCain has been the most passionate, and some would say overly passionate, supporter of staying the course in Iraq. But his position is no different from every other Republican presidential hopeful who have, whether they believe it or like it, have fallen in line to embrace Bush’s bloody disaster (the exception of Libertarian-minded Rep. Ron Paul of Texas who has become the Net roots favorite and who has more campaign cash on hand than McCain). Supporting the war on the GOP side is no more distinct than opposing it is for the Democratic presidential hopefuls.
But his support for the war, UNH pollster Andy Smith told me recently, has cost him dearly among the independents who supported McCain in large numbers in 2000. That constituency has vanished.
In essence, McCain has no defining issue and his latest drop in New Hampshire polls, his almost painful second quarter fund-raising, and the recent staff cuts have, depending on one’s perspective, either freed him to be the real John McCain, a guerrilla campaigner, or to be the 2008 equivalent of dead politician walking. One of those former Republican-leaning independents, a former McCain supporter in 2000, asked me if McCain was “dead in the water,” and said he was considering a switch of allegiances to Saint Rudy (Giuliani) of 9/11, because the former New York mayor, he believes, is a better election bet.
Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be that way, and, having covered McCain, I can only imagine it must burn him to no end seeing the likes of Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson rise to the top by defying political gravity — not unlike Bush in 2000. It’s become a cruel, slow-motion replay with different foes and a vastly different, more polarized audience. This time, the media has changed roles from fun-loving sidekicks to circling vultures with each story becoming more obituary-like — including this one.
While it’s easy to write McCain off, wise-guy pundits such as yours truly have been wrong so many times in the past that such stories become so much media fertilizer. McCain’s greatest asset is himself and he’s not blowing smoke when he says he is the best campaigner with no shortage of righteous energy — and he’s blessed by a weak set of opponents and a GOP electorate that is quite divided in its loyalties. His campaign has leaked a death-defying memo (which reads like a press release), saying “The Road to Victory 2008” will have McCain “living off the land” (code for “we have no money”) and making last stands in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina. That he will likely make these stands to many who are deaf to his calls doesn’t matter. Ironically, the candidate who wanted to play the long ball, big-budget campaign will now likely survive through federal matching funds — the ultimate small-ball approach in this era of the billion-dollar presidential campaign. If McCain makes a comeback against these odds, that will make one hell of a biopic.
Political columnist Michael McCord is the opinion page editor of Herald Sunday and the Portsmouth Herald.