To anyone who has been pining for the tell-it-like-it-is John McCain who ran for president in 2000, the days of longing may be over.
In the South Carolina GOP presidential debate last Tuesday, in a closed-door gathering of senators Thursday and then on a conference call Monday with Republican-leaning bloggers, the Arizona senator flashed what may be both his biggest asset and his biggest liability: a quick wit and stiletto-sharp tongue.
The question for his presidential campaign this time is whether such attacks are helpful reminders for many people of why they originally liked the man or enhance his image as someone inclined to lose his cool when threatened.
"He's a unique candidate in American politics," said Brian Jones, McCain's campaign spokesman. "He speaks directly, very forthrightly, and has a fantastic sense of humor. It's what makes him the best candidate in the field and what attracts people to him."
Some of those qualities were on display during Monday's conference call. The New York Sun's Ryan Sager asked McCain about the efforts of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson to score political points on immigration.
Swinging first at Romney, the senator hit the vulnerable spots. First, he attacked the former governor for his flip-flops: "Maybe I should wait a couple of weeks and see if it changes, because it's changed in less than a year from his position before."
He followed that with a one-two punch: "Maybe his solution will be to get out his small-varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his lawn."
Those blows were in response to Romney's earlier gaffes over his hunting prowess and an allusion to a Boston Globe report last year that Romney used, apparently unknowingly, illegal immigrants from Guatemala to do yard work.
McCain then swiped at Thompson, an old friend and colleague. "I'm a little disappointed in Fred because again he had a very different position not that long ago," he noted, referring to Thompson's less hawkish comments on border issues.
The downside of McCain's ability to deploy a quick, cutting quote is that it plays into a dangerous theme that haunted his last presidential bid: his temper.
That was on display last week. Hammering out the final details of the immigration compromise, McCain lobbed the F-bomb at Sen. John Cornyn after the Texas Republican pointed out that his colleague had missed much of the tense negotiations because he'd been on the campaign trail.
Some perceive McCain as an uncoachable politician who cannot feign interest in what doesn't interest him, must demonstrably prove what does strike a nerve and is dangerously resourceful in coming up with his own material.
"He is the candidate he is," Jones said. "You don't want to curb that, you don't want to modify that. You couldn't even if you wanted to."
Which is why after months of quiet — or at least anonymous — stewing that Romney was brazenly taking shots at McCain's conservative credentials, Jones and others were delighted to see their candidate use the Fox News-sponsored debate to throw an elbow in the direction of the smooth talker who, they loved to point out, was until fairly recently a conventional New England moderate.
When Romney sought to pair McCain's support for campaign finance reform — "McCain-Feingold" — with his backing of a comprehensive immigration bill — "McCain-Kennedy" — the old Navy aviator showed his feisty side.
"Well, I take and kept a consistent position on campaign finance reform," he said. "I have kept a consistent position on right to life. And I haven't changed my position in even-numbered years or have changed because of the different offices that I may be running for."
In his 2000 run, McCain's manner of speech was such the draw that his campaign named his bus the Straight Talk Express. Republican activists and the press both found his style refreshing, especially in contrast to the mechanical style of George W. Bush. The senator's glib observations about all manner of topics never inflicted grave damage on his campaign.
That style is more problematic now, given the changes in the technology of how politics is covered and in the sort of tougher treatment McCain is receiving this time around. But his camp recognizes the good and bad that comes with providing the access they do, and they hope it tilts to the former.
Indeed, it's not the style of the last campaign that they want to avoid but rather the substance. Specifically, McCain and his advisers know he can't win the GOP nomination if he's seen as challenging Republican orthodoxy.
And that is why it is no coincidence that all three recent examples of McCain's prickly and direct manner had to do with what is now the signal issue for the conservative base. Already viewed with doubt by some Republican regulars, McCain cannot let Romney, or anybody else, define him as uniquely out of step with the party. What campaign finance reform was to many conservative elites in 2000 is what immigration could be to the conservative grass roots in 2008: an issue that makes McCain's candidacy a non-starter.
That is, unless the Straight Talk crew can paint the other candidates as having views that are now, or were until very recently, not any different than McCain's.
By Jonathan Martin
© 2007 The Politico & Politico.com, a division of Allbritton Communications Company