McCain's Second Wind?

Once a media darling for his often “off the conservative reservation” positions, now often considered the “forgotten” candidate, Senator John McCain soldiers on in his bid to be the Republican nominee for president.

But as former Mayor Rudy Giuliani answers cell phone calls from his wife in the middle of a policy speech, former Senator Fred Thompson announces his candidacy to Jay Leno and then promptly disappears, and former Governor Mitt Romney struggles to get traction in national polls, there is McCain, slowly and steadily, building back some momentum.

I interviewed him a few days ago, and he did something politicians almost never do: he admitted a mistake.  His support of the now-defeated “amnesty” bill for illegal immigrants hurt him with the conservative base, and he has subsequently rethought his position on the issue.  “I got the message,” he told me.  He went on to say that he now favors border enforcement first, before trying to deal with the 12 (?) million illegals already in the country.  

I asked him specifically if he thought New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to give driver’s licenses to illegals — without requiring a Social Security number or other proof of legal status — was appropriate.  McCain flatly answered, “No, it is not.”

The reason this exchange is important is because McCain is one of two Republican candidates whose candidacies are defined by the two issues brought together by illegal immigration — rule of law and national security.  Giuliani is the other.

That’s why it was crucial for McCain to get in front of it and admit he’d been wrong initially.  Whether there is still time for him to salvage his campaign, we shall soon see.  But there are many positive signs that he may rise again.

First, he was widely considered to have won the GOP debate in New Hampshire last month.  He turned in a strong performance that made a lot of people pause, rather than zip right by him to Giuliani or Romney.  It also got him a lot of renewed media coverage.  People began to rediscover him.  Those who may have forgotten about him or written him off began to take another look.

Second, McCain played into his national security credentials by touring the early caucus and primary states on a “No Surrender” tour designed to rally support for the troop surge in Iraq.  That message was a powerful antidote to the surrender and smear campaign.  It resonated not just with conservatives but with moderates and independents who don’t want to see the United States humiliated.  Who want to see the military allowed the time to do their job in Iraq. And who understand that what happens in Iraq will affect us in the bigger global war.

Giuliani has national security credentials because of his leadership in New York City on September 11.  But McCain is the only other candidate who’s got that big mantle of credibility on national security, and stands alone among the candidates on a record of  heroism serving in the U.S. military.

The third reason McCain may be picking up steam: the immediate collapse of Fred Thompson.  Thompson was supposed to “replace” McCain as the older, experienced hand with the Reaganesque flair.  After declaring his intention to run on the Tonight Show, he puttered out.  He may be out there campaigning, but nobody knows it.  And much of his money is coming from one state: Tennessee.  You cannot build a national campaign on one state.  So, McCain may be picking up those who fell in love with the idea of Fred Thompson and then fell out of love when they actually saw Fred Thompson in the real campaign world.

McCain, however, has an increasingly serious problem that could derail any comeback scenario: dwindling funds.  His campaign is gravely short on cash.  In the third quarter reporting period, McCain raised over $5 million, behind the fundraising leader, Romney, with $10 million, Giuliani with roughly the same, and Thompson with about $8 million.  You can’t run a campaign on fumes.  McCain — like John Edwards on the Democratic side — may opt for federal matching funds, which would limit how much he could spend but would give his campaign a shot of dough.  He’s going to need more money — a lot of it — if he’s going to stay in.

In politics, perception is reality.  If McCain appears to be making a comeback of sorts, the money will follow.  Getting tougher on illegal immigration, winning the last GOP debate, leading a solidarity movement with our troops on Iraq, and capitalizing on the Thompson stall have created a sense of momentum for him.  The latest CNN/WMUR poll in New Hampshire shows him moving up to 18%, third behind Romney (25%) and Giuliani (24%).  

People may be taking a second look at McCain now because frankly, with all of the headline-generating freneticism surrounding Giuliani, Romney, and Thompson, they sort of forgot McCain was still in it.  But he’s there, running steady as he goes. And maybe, if he can survive the money crunch, there’s an opening for him.  The forgotten candidate may, on primary day, end up the stealth candidate.