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Conservatives will always be suspicious of the Arizona senator

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John McCain and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Campaign

Conservatives will always be suspicious of the Arizona senator

About a month ago, Howard Fineman opined that the leading 2008 Presidential candidates could be paired into three groups.  In Fineman’s view, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Barack Obama represent their respective parties’ “Charismatic” candidates, while former Sen. John Edwards and former Gov. Mitt Romney are “Base-Wooers.” Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain are described as “Practicals.”

Inasmuch as such a Manichean view of the candidates is useful, McCain is better paired with Edwards, not Clinton.  Both Edwards and McCain are former presidential candidates who had done surprisingly well in previous long-shot campaigns.  Both, however, have run truly abysmal campaigns so far this cycle.

The problems with McCain’s candidacy date back to the collapse of his 2000 campaign.  While it is common knowledge that McCain has a “base problem,” many have forgotten just how a cenator with a reasonably conservative record earned the enmity of so many conservatives.  In early February of 2000, McCain shocked the political world by upending George W. Bush by 18 points in the New Hampshire primary.  Bush righted his ship a few weeks later with a victory in South Carolina.  But the following week McCain rallied in his native Arizona and in Michigan, winning a double victory.  This set the stage for a battle royale in the Virginia primary.

The race was tight, but McCain — who was increasingly on thin ice with the conservative base due to his comfortable relationship with the media and open courting of independents and Democrats during the primary season — committed a horrendous pair of errors that haunt him to this day.  On February 28, he compared leaders of the Religious Right to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and activist leader Rev. Al Sharpton. The following day he accused the Rev. Pat Robertson and Rev. Jerry Falwell of wielding “an evil influence” over the Republican Party.  

McCain apologized quickly, but the damage was done.  The conservative base and its evangelical subset are more heterodox than the national media caricature, but the deliberate assault on a substantial segment of the party was too much for loyalists of all stripes to bear.  He lost Virginia by 10 points.  His campaign never recovered any momentum, and though he won a handful of New England primaries on the following week’s “Super Tuesday,” the race was essentially over.

Thus, McCain’s task for this campaign has been to rebuild his bridges with the base of his party.  He has emphasized his pro-life credentials, which are definitely the strongest among the “Big Three” of McCain, Romney, and Giuliani.  He found religion on tax cuts, and now supports extending the Bush tax cuts.  He spoke at a graduation at Rev. Falwell’s Liberty University.  And perhaps most importantly, he has been a staunch supporter of the Bush Administration’s troop surge in Iraq.

Yet his campaign has stumbled badly.  He began by announcing his campaign on the David Letterman show, where ’96 nominee Bob Dole had announced his ill-fated candidacy.  Comparisons to the Republicans’ last septuagenarian candidate were not what the 70-year-old McCain needed.  He worsened matters by referring to lives lost in the Iraq war as “wasted,” instantly dissipating much of the goodwill he had built up among conservatives with his support of the war.

He then made the curious choice to skip one of the major conservative events of the year:  The 34th Conservative Political Action Conference.  This was a major mistake, as about the only good thing to come out of it is that it is difficult for the mainstream media to tie McCain to Ann Coulter’s controversial comments at CPAC — comments which have also breathed some life into the campaign of McCain’s pair, John Edwards.  

Any minor advantage gained from this, though, was more than offset in two ways.  First, McCain missed a critical opportunity to address conservative activists.  Candidates who have had problems with the base such as Romney and Giuliani generally performed well, and may have allayed some of the base’s fears regarding their candidacies. Even Sen. Arlen Specter was politely received.  It was more than a mere missed opportunity, though, as McCain also further alienated his base.  “Once Again, McCain Snubs Conservatives” fumed Redstate, while Captain’s Quarters noted that McCain’s absence was not a “Profile in Political Courage.”  McCain also did damage to his image as a straight-talking reformer, as Race42008.com reported that McCain’s operatives anonymously pushed personal attacks on Giuliani.

The polls and political markets have picked up on this.  In almost all national polls, Giuliani has now opened up a significant lead on the senator.  McCain finished a weak fifth in the CPAC straw poll, and had to rally at the last minute for a weak 2-vote win over Giuliani in the Spartanburg, South Carolina poll.  The frighteningly-accurate futures markets at Tradesports/Intrade have measured a 50% decrease in McCain’s odds of winning the nomination since January, and he now lags a surging Giuliani and is in real danger of falling behind a steadily-increasing Romney.

McCain’s problem is that conservatives will always be suspicious of him, making any overtures toward the center nearly impossible.  At the same, further movement toward the Right will cost him support among Democrats and Independents he needs to win the general election.  There are no easy answers to the senator’s dilemma, but there is a cautionary tale for future candidates:  It is one thing to disagree with your base on some issues, but it is another altogether to attack your base.  McCain now finds himself in the same weakened position as Edwards, though for a very different set of reasons.  Both candidates need to figure out ways to right their ships, quickly.

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Mr. Trende is a Richmond attorney whose Human Events column on election matters appears on Mondays. The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

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