In the obituaries already being written about campaign, here's what frustrates Republicans most: All of his biggest mistakes could easily have been avoided.
Before he made each flawed decision to alter his strategy, McCain was either benefiting from key dynamics that could have helped him win a tough race or positioned on a foundation from which to chart a reasonable course toward victory. Instead, time after time, he left solid ground for a more risky course.
His response to the economy was his most regrettable move. Nothing has plagued Republicans more this year than the economic crash that commandeered the campaign in mid-September. But initially, the Wall Street collapse actually presented McCain with an opportunity; facing voters' rising anxieties, he could have cloaked himself in an aura of experience and stability that, if properly rolled out, would have sent flailing. Instead, McCain launched a series of oddball stunts -- "suspending" his campaign one day, unveiling a half-baked mortgage plan the next and, finally, launching a full-throated pander to a certain Ohio plumber. The cumulative result: a conversation about his "temperament."
Of course, McCain had little control over the external forces that shaped the current economic landscape. His most damaging, and complex, wound was entirely self-inflicted. Her name is Sarah Palin.
Palin's drag on the ticket has been widely documented in polling, anecdotes from the trail, media interviews and a recent round of intra-campaign recriminations. But what's most bizarre is that McCain appeared to be heading in an entirely different direction with his choice just days before he unveiled Palin to the country. Those top prospects were either well respected or at least well positioned. Any of them would have boosted the GOP ticket and reinforced the case McCain was making in the weeks leading up to the party's convention: that a crisis calls for steady, experienced leaders.
The selection bled into several other ill-advised decisions: Choosing "maverick" over "experience," courting conservatives over moderates and independents and alienating a mainstream media that once adored him. In the end, Palin was the ultimate bridge to nowhere.
Republicans initially embraced the prospect of putting two "mavericks" on the same ticket. But in hindsight, given the finger-pointing now emanating from the Palin camp, was it wise to choose someone who fiercely prides herself on charting her own course? She is a young, ambitious politician, remember, who has claimed two elected offices by knocking off older, more established men, both incumbents from within her own party. With Palin, McCain made a choice to claim the "maverick" mantle at the expense of "experience," an argument that had helped him gain ground this summer. All of which might explain why Obama pulled even with McCain on Monday in the Diageo/Hotline tracking poll [PDF] on the question of which candidate is better prepared to lead. Two weeks ago [PDF], McCain had an 8-percentage-point edge on that question.
Despite a primary that had forced him to court his party's base, McCain was also building support this summer among moderates and independents, including women who had supported Hillary Rodham Clinton. But he misread their priorities, believing they were motivated solely by gender, not ideology. He thought Palin offered a unique opportunity to excite conservatives while drawing heavily from those women. It worked, briefly. And then, well, it didn't.
Instead, in a year when his party's brand is at its lowest ebb in a generation, McCain has run a "base" campaign, railing against Obama's "socialist" ideology. In Cleveland on Monday, McCain stood with a team of economic conservatives and drew the sharp partisan, ideological lines that moderates and independents say they have grown tired of.
McCain also ends this race with a distinctly different relationship with the mainstream media than he enjoyed as recently as the GOP primary. At that time, he swatted down a New York Times report on his ties to a female lobbyist with one finger-wagging press conference. The press treated his campaign's mid-2007 slump like a hero's funeral, a good friend gone too soon. His comeback in the New Hampshire primary was covered with all the festoonery of a long-awaited homecoming. Within months, however, his campaign was complaining about pro-Obama bias and producing Web videos chronicling the media's love affair with "The One." Finally came the GOP convention and a series of speakers, most notably Palin, who railed against the bias and elitism of a group McCain once called his base.
Speaking of base voters, Obama is now poised to make Hispanics a huge part of his. Early on, Republicans hoped McCain would break new ground with this fast-growing group; he hailed from the Southwest and had crafted a moderate immigration reform measure in 2006 that pleased many Hispanic political leaders. This would help the GOP nominee, strategists said, in must-win states like Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico, as well as Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. But McCain distanced himself from his own immigration bill during the GOP primary, in effect choosing his party's base over the nation's fastest-growing minority group. Polls now show McCain drawing a smaller share of Hispanic voters than President Bush did in 2004. Among Hispanic voters in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, McCain is trailing Obama by more than 40 points, according to new Diageo/Hotline polling that shows him with a 62 percent favorability rating.
And finally, of course, the Bush factor. No Republican has had a more storied rivalry with Bush than his opponent in the 2000 GOP primary. And yet, no Republican has been a bigger victim of his ties to the unpopular president. As recently as 2005, McCain was well poised to run as Bush's archnemesis, challenging him on global warming, tax cuts, Guantanamo Bay and torture. Fast-forward to this year, when he said this during the GOP primary: "I voted with the president over 90 percent of the time, higher than a lot of my even Republican colleagues."
He didn't have to say that. And again, in the end, it didn't have to be this way.