Despite his shrinking candidacy, McCain is still the GOP's best bet

August 15, 2007|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

Pity poor John McCain. His dream of becoming the Republican nominee - no less, president of the United States - seems increasingly unlikely each month. The funny thing is, he may still be the Republicans' best candidate.

Mr. McCain's declining fortunes are partly of his own making. Looking back to his 2000 bid and comparing it with his present problems, it's clear that the Arizona senator's original sin is bad timing. He ran as a maverick eight years ago, at a time before the modern conservative movement received an overdue bill for three decades of vanities, policy failures, moral hypocrisies and its ideological rightward lurch toward radicalism.

Now, at a moment when Republicans seem to be rethinking everything from their foreign policy assumptions to their position on reproductive choice, Mr. McCain has positioned himself as heir to George W. Bush's legacy, including the Iraq war.

Although the president remains quite popular among Republican regulars, for his loyalty Mr. McCain has inherited little. Meanwhile, the senator's support for campaign finance and immigration reforms has ruined his reputation among base conservatives.

The result is that Mr. McCain finds himself in a worst-of-both-worlds situation: Conservative Republicans view him as insufficiently conservative, and the moderate wing that nearly propelled him to the nomination in 2000 is wondering how the former "Straight Talk Express" driver got himself wrapped around the Iraq war axle. And as Michael Crowley writes in the latest issue of The New Republic, Mr. McCain's recent efforts to renew his image as an maverick insurgent may fall flat because it's tough to "un-sell out."

All of Mr. McCain's ideological positioning would be irrelevant if his campaign were running smoothly instead of like a unicycle with a square tire.

He's low on cash. He's sinking in the polls. Key staffers and consultants have bailed on him. Last weekend he finished 10th in the Republicans' straw poll in Ames, Iowa. (Congressman Duncan Hunter - bonus points if you can so much as name the state he represents - came in ninth.)

On Saturday, campaign manager Rick Davis issued an evasive, two-sentence statement about the straw poll, the first sentence of which read, "Over the past eight months John McCain has met with Iowans across the state, built a broad base of support, and demonstrated why he is the most prepared candidate to lead America from day one."

This sounds like a poor excuse for Mr. McCain's weak showing in Ames, and it eerily echoes Democrat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's warrant for her own candidacy. But it has the convenient feature of being true: Surveying the Republican field, one realizes that there is nobody more qualified to take over the White House than he.

Put all the "formers" in a room together - former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani; former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; and the flavor of the month for August, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee -and they have, combined, maybe half the foreign policy and defense credentials of John McCain. Whatever else might be said of Mr. McCain's positions on Iraq - prone to uttering empty, "we-will-win-because-we-must-win" phrases, he's been a poor apologist for the Bush administration's failed policies - at least he has shown the courage to stake his reputation and his presidential hopes on his support for the war.

Most of the rest of the field, meanwhile, is paying lip service to the war and hoping to change the subject.

There was a time, as recently as 2005, when John McCain was that rare politician who had majority approval among Republicans, Democrats and independents. He was a media darling, a regular fixture on the Sunday morning shows. And, of course, he is a Vietnam War hero.

Whether Mr. McCain can recover his reputation and right his campaign is unclear. Yet Mr. McCain is singular in the field of Republicans: He's a pro-life veteran who has taken firm positions on controversial issues, and his immigration stance demonstrates true courage.

In a field of inexperienced poseurs and serial flip-floppers, Mr. McCain is a candidate of stature who would give Democrats a serious challenge in 2008.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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