John McCain came to Memphis Friday afternoon with a simple mission: to prove his loyalty to the man who beat him for president in 2000. And nothing - not straw polls nor lurking reporters - would derail that mission.
The Arizona senator, who often touts his maverick credentials, had one message this weekend at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC) in Memphis. And it's a simple one: I'm with the president. McCain knows that if he wants to win the White House, he needs the party's base.
The SRLC is the first major gathering of 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls, and it’s also the site of the first major straw poll of White House contenders. In a move that might impress Machiavelli himself, McCain told delegates to the conference not to vote for him.
"Straw polls are entertaining, my friends, even extremely early ones," he said. "But I think we have bigger things to worry about. So if any friends here are thinking of voting for me, please don't. Just write in President Bush's name. For the next three years, with our country at war, he’s our president and the only one who needs our support today." And in a weekend almost devoid of Iraq discussion, McCain defended the war and urged the crowd to support their commander-in-chief.
McCain needs to show the party’s base that he’s one of them, that he can be a team player. It’s a process he began as one of George Bush's most reliable allies in the 2004 presidential election. Last night, he tried to hang a lantern on the problem, joking with his audience that he was talked about as a possible vice presidential candidate in 2004, even though it "wasn’t clear which party." In another Reaganesque attempt at self-deprecation, McCain called himself "older than dirt." If elected, he would become the oldest president to take the oath of office.
The senator’s aides shielded him from all media yesterday, quickly ushering him through the Peabody Hotel lobby and denying all press requests. In a late-night chase, Hardball producers staked out McCain for an exclusive interview in the hotel’s kitchen. Chris Matthews asked him about his support for the president. "Let me be serious for a minute about it," McCain said. He’s having trouble right now. We Republicans all know that. That’s when he needs us to stand by him. He doesn’t need us when his numbers are 65. He needs us now. That’s my only message."
After his interview, the senator headed out to B.B. King's on Beale Street for a party hosted by Mississippi's dynamic governor, Haley Barbour.
Early on Saturday morning, decked out in his navy blue U.S. Senate windbreaker, McCain gladhanded around the Peabody Hotel lobby one final time before heading to the Mississippi coast with Sen. Trent Lott.
The big question now: will McCain's loyal, pro-Bush message convince the party's base that he's one of them? If so, the maverick of 2000 could become the insider of 2008.
Jeremy Bronson is Hardball's Supervising Producer