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The maverick changes his tactic

In a sense, Sen. John McCain’s campaign for the presidency in 2008 began with a personal, private phone call he made last week -- to President George W. Bush. By Howard Fineman.
Sen. John McCain joined President Bush for a rally during the president's reelection campaign in 2004.Tom Hood / AP file

In a sense, Sen. John McCain’s campaign for the presidency in 2008 began with a personal, private phone call he made last week -- to President George W. Bush.

A good source told me about it here the other day, in a quiet moment at the Southern Republicans’ conference at the Peabody Hotel, and McCain himself confirmed it at a reception hosted by Mississippi Republicans at one of the noisiest places in town, BB King’s restaurant.

Private though it was, the McCain call was emblematic of the ‘08 strategy that he and his circle have decided to pursue. They want to build out their campaign with members of the Bush circle, and base McCain’s pitch on the notion that he is the only sensible, electable and competent commander who can take control of the war on terror.

“Competence and electability,” that’s what we’re going to talk about,” said a key advisor. “If you support the president’s vision, John can carry it forward.”

The road less traveled
Known as an outsider and maverick, McCain in 2008 has chosen a different route -- and probably had no choice, given his prominence and experience. He and his aides are making the best they can of it, and one aspect of doing so involves trying to reel in Bush’s top operatives and supporters.

Here in Memphis, McCainanites worked closely on straw poll strategy with Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, a Bush loyalist widely regarded as one of the sharpest strategic and organizational minds in the party. They are wooing him to come aboard officially, which would be a major coup for McCain.

Word around the Peabody lobby is that another former GOP chairman, Richard Bond, is part of an unofficial circle of counselors, too.

So what was the Bush call about? According to McCain, he simply wanted to offer friendship during the furor over the now-defunct Dubai Ports deal. Even though President Bush remains popular with most hard-core Republicans, his overall poll numbers are about as low as you can go -- flirting with territory once occupied by Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon.

As McCain explained it, you get no credit for standing with a popular ally; the test of friendship is to be at his side when he’s down. So the call was meant as a personal pick-me-up. “I wanted to tell him that I was with him, and supported him, and that the polls weren’t a test of whether he was doing the right thing, which I think he is.”

All of which would be fine, even touching, were there not also a series of political and tactical motives.

A splendid dodge
For one, McCain made the call on the eve of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, a gathering of southern and Midwestern insiders -- the very core of the party Bush and Karl Rove built. And there would be a straw poll, conducted by The Hotline, to sample the ‘08 preferences of delegates. If McCain is planning to run a “50 state strategy,” as one of his top aides describes it, and if he is planning to run as the battle-tested next-in-line to Bush, shouldn’t he be popular with the delegates in Memphis?

Well, three problems. One, Memphis in the home state of Sen. Bill Frist, who’s also running for president and who makes up for his lack of eloquence with meticulous organization.

For another, most of the 2,000 or so delegates would be from the Bible Belt, not McCain’s natural home.

Lastly, a lot of Bush loyalists are party types, with a native distrust of McCain’s maverick history -- and more than a dim recollection of the bruising, Bush-versus-McCain moments in the primary season of 2000. The hard part of being a putative frontrunner, is that you are supposed to show strength anywhere and everywhere.

So to avoid embarrassment, the McCainanites came up with a splendid dodge: McCain would selflessly suggest that, instead of voting for him, they should write in Bush’s name in a patriotic show of support for a beleaguered president. “Brilliant maneuver,” said David Carney of New Hampshire, a savvy operative who was working the lobby.

In the end, it was perhaps too cute by half. Hauling in busloads of students, and calling on the affection of Tennesseans who respect his smarts (if not his dreadful speaking style), Frist won 36 percent of the straw poll vote -- a decent enough if not overwhelming showing on his home court.

The surprise second-place, 14 percent, showing of Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts will propel him to the position he belongs: a leading contender (even if his advisors would rather that his organization fly below radar for as long as possible).

Sen. George Allen of Virginia, at 10 percent, could have used a better showing, since he is the avowed and most plausible Son of the South Reaganite of the bunch. He finished in a tie with write-in candidate Bush, whose advisors could hardly have been pleased and relieved by that show of support.

As for McCain, he got a self-inflicted meager 4 percent. Even assuming that all the folks who voted for Bush would have voted for McCain, the total would have been 14 percent, tied with Romney.

The McCain crowd has made the calculated decision not to spend a fortune in Memphis trying to compete with Frist, and they took consolation in the fact that such straw polls rarely are predictive of anything -- Frist is hardly the frontrunner now -- and on the fact that they saved a couple of hundred thousand dollars on what might have been a fool’s errand.

Still, they exposed the risks of their embrace-the-president strategy. If they are such good buddies, and if McCain is the natural follow-on to George Bush, shouldn’t the senator have been the toast of more folks in the Peabody lobby?

It’s a tough hand to play. “Is there a playbook for how to run as an insider and outsider, establishment and anti-establishment?” asked a weary McCain strategist. “If you find it, let me know.”