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Evaluating McCain's 'Straight talk'

/ Source: National Journal

Many journalists and others are starting to write obituaries for Arizona Sen. John McCain's bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

There is no doubt McCain's ship has hit some rocks and shoals, but it would seem that his chief rivals for the nomination, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have enough real and potential problems on the immediate horizon that it probably isn't prudent to write McCain off yet.

If ideological and personal problems were bowling balls, there would be a pile six feet high and growing being loaded onto the Giuliani row boat and it's difficult to imagine how it will stay afloat.

It's debatable whether a large portion of the GOP base would be open to a candidate who not only favors a woman's right to choose but also favors public funding of abortions. This is terra incognita; no Republican presidential candidate has ever ventured there before.

And as impressive as Romney is, his ideological dexterity and tendency to revise his past is such that his candidacy no longer appears to be the panacea it once seemed.

I've shot guns since I was a kid and I've only been hunting a handful of times, but apparently several times more than Romney. I would never call myself a "lifelong hunter," but Romney seems to be doing just that. His 2005 admission to the National Rifle Association seems to be a disingenuous attempt to become something he isn't.

So McCain's hopes for the Republican nomination aren't dead, but they are definitely in the intensive care unit.

The 'maverick' problem
There are only two ways one can quantitatively measure the progress of a presidential campaign at this stage: money and polls. McCain is underperforming in both. He is in sixth place on the list of the top six Republican and Democratic candidates in money raised and his support in GOP nomination ballot tests has been in decline since last fall. Furthermore, Giuliani's and Romney's numbers are on the rise, and that isn't even taking into consideration the chorus of calls for new candidates to enter the fray.

As is so often the case, McCain doesn't have a single problem, he has several.

First, as mothers have long taught children, first impressions are lasting impressions. The first impression McCain left on the national stage was in his 2000 presidential campaign. He projected the image of a maverick, someone with a strong independent streak, riding across the nation on a bus labeled the "Straight Talk Express." Many journalists sucked down the Kool-Aid, falling in love with the Republican who was candid and irreverent.

But McCain and his camp learned painfully seven years ago that while mavericks can get great press coverage, they don't win nominations. Party nods are awarded by establishment insiders who see "maverick" as an antonym for "team player."

Coming into the 2008 campaign, McCain sought to reposition himself as a team player, sticking to the party line as much as he was capable of doing -- kissing all the appropriate rear-ends and saying all the acceptable things. But in McCain's attempted transition from maverick to team player, he has ended up stuck in a political purgatory, no longer seen as a straight-talking, atypical politician, but not accepted as a member of the establishment, either.

The resulting problem is that one group no longer trusts him and the other hasn't embraced him. Furthermore, the love-stricken media passengers on the 2000 Straight Talk Express feel betrayed.

The Iraq factor
McCain's second problem is Iraq. While the fervent opposition to the war and particularly the troop surge is found mostly among Democrats and independents, Republicans remain unified behind President Bush and the war. But their intensity of support for the war is waning and the anxiety level over the way it has been waged is rising. Also, there is growing sentiment among Republicans who believe that while the war might have been the right thing to do, it has been so thoroughly botched -- by politicians, not the military -- that it might no longer be winnable.

Republicans seem unenthusiastic about the prospect of nominating someone who seems so thoroughly identified with and joined at the hip with the war. They don't want the Iraq war to be the centerpiece in two consecutive elections, fearing two identical outcomes.

Finally, it shouldn't be a shock that someone whose former centerpiece issue was campaign finance reform, and whose disdain for raising money is legendary, didn't raise as much money as any of his top-tier peers in either party. McCain doesn't like fundraising, and he isn't that great at it. Unfortunately for him, he doesn't seem to have people close to him who love it, are good at it and are really up to cracking heads and other body parts to make sure people deliver on their pledges.

One thing McCain does have going for him is his first-rate, all-star campaign operation. It's a team so good that writing them off now would be shortsighted. But his campaign has big problems and, at this point, the only way he wins is if his rivals' problems become even bigger than his own.