McCain's once front-running status has been downgraded to long-shot land for most, and for good reasons. His campaign blew through nearly all of the $25 million it had raised in the first half of the year, resulting in a complete turnover at the top of the effort, wholesale cutbacks in his national and state-by-state teams and a precipitous drop in the polls.
But McCain hasn't been totally written off, either by his political opponents or the pundit set. Whether it's his national stature and name recognition or simply the unsettled landscape of the GOP nominating contest, the Arizona senator isn't out of the picture just yet. Is there reason to think that McCain can make a real comeback? In a Boston Globe op-ed today, Jennifer Donahue, senior adviser for the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, sees some signs of life for his campaign.
Having all but discarded a fully national structure, McCain is focusing almost exclusively on the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Donahue cites two reasons why that's important, especially when it comes to the Granite State. First, she writes, "is the importance of the August before the primary." Second is "that New Hampshire gives supposedly faltering front-runners a chance to come back."
For his part, McCain is trying mightily to get past this summer's meltdown, saying he's no longer interested in talking about what went wrong between January and July. He's reached back to the tactics that helped him win a decisive victory in New Hampshire in 2000 — openness with the press, more direct contact with voters and a devil-may-care attitude about it all. In a recent interview with the Columbia State, McCain expressed confidence in winning the nomination but also didn't seem worried about the eventual outcome. "I'm very confident of it," he told the paper. "But I also understand that maybe I won't."
McCain is trying to patch up differences with Republican primary voters he angered with his support of the failed immigration reform bill. While backed by President Bush and other Republicans, the rank-and-file equated it with amnesty and McCain's support seemed to be the last straw for those who viewed the senator as too much of a maverick for their tastes. McCain now says the effort failed because supporters of the bill were unable to effectively communicate their seriousness on security. "I think we failed to convince the American people that we're serious about securing our borders," he told "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer.
A staunch supporter of the current strategy in Iraq, McCain could benefit from any successes in the war between now and the nominating contests in January but it's unlikely to be enough to lift him back into the top tier. Iowa, where he pledges to compete, remains a difficult state for him. His maverick reputation doesn't play well among caucus goers who tend to be very conservative and for whom the immigration issue is hot. South Carolina, with its heavy military presence, is more friendly ground for the former Navy pilot and POW but memories linger of the bitter battle there with Bush in 2000.
New Hampshire remains McCain's best hope in the current environment. The "straight talk," a theme he has indicated he will return to in force, plays much better in the "live free or die" state, especially among the political independents who make up over a third of the electorate there. But, unlike 2000 where those independents flocked to vote in the GOP race, the betting this time around is that the majority will be attracted to the Democratic contest. New Hampshire has trended more blue in recent elections and the presence of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is almost certain to be a draw.
It's tempting to think of McCain as a combination of his 2000 version and John Kerry's 2004 model. Just four years ago, Democratic voters appeared to have abandoned the front-runner in favor of Howard Dean only to return to Kerry just before the actual voting began. If Kerry could do it, just think what a more charismatic candidate and his "straight talk express" could accomplish. But this is 2008 and the terrain is very different from those elections. While nobody is ready to write him off just yet, it's getting harder and harder to imagine what those comeback stories would look like. — Vaughn Ververs
Bordering On An Attack: In recent weeks, Republicans Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have accused each other of not doing enough to stop the flow of illegal immigrants — Romney while serving as Massachusetts governor, and Giuliani during his tenure as New York mayor.
The back-and-forth between the two has now gone beyond stump speeches and interviews and into the realm of campaign advertising. Today Romney's campaign unveiled a new radio ad in Iowa and New Hampshire that touts Romney's own record on immigration while making a none-too-subtle attack on Giuliani.
"Immigration laws don't work if they're ignored," the ad's narrator says. "That's the problem with cities like Newark, San Francisco and New York City that adopt sanctuary policies." The implication is clear: Giuliani's hometown is being lumped in with Newark, where an illegal immigrant has been charged in the murders of three college students, and San Francisco, a city that is synonymous with "liberal" among conservatives.
That's about as close as one can get to attacking someone without using their name. Summer is waning, but it looks like the GOP race is about to heat up. — David Miller
Obama's Cuban Pitch: Evidence of Florida's increasing importance in the nominating process was on display today in the Miami Herald, where an op-ed penned by Barack Obama delved into the issue of relations with Cuba — a hot political topic in the state, especially among the large population of Cuban Americans in south Florida.
In his column, Obama accuses the Bush administration of political posturing in its dealings with Fidel Castro's regime while doing little to actually advance the cause of spreading democracy to Cuba. "Unfortunately, the Bush administration has made grand gestures to that end while strategically blundering when it comes to actually advancing the cause of freedom and democracy in Cuba," Obama writes. "This is particularly true of the administration's decision to restrict the ability of Cuban Americans to visit and send money to their relatives in Cuba."
Obama goes on to propose giving unrestricted rights to Cuban Americans to visit their families in Cuba and send them money and supplies. He also writes that if a post-Castro regime makes serious steps toward increasing political freedom on the island, he as president would move to normalize relations between the two countries and consider easing the trade embargo that has been in place since 1962.
What Obama's proposing is notable, but what is more interesting is who it's aimed at — Cuban American voters who, unlike most Hispanic groups, have voted reliably Republican for years and many of them were not pleased when Obama said in an earlier debate that he'd be willing to meet with Castro and other dictators. But these new proposals seem to be another instance of what has become a running theme of Obama's campaign: moving beyond partisanship to find solutions all sides can support. Obama's proposal is also unlikely to turn off the Democratic base, which is probably not a coincidence.
In fact, the biggest hurdle in getting Cuban Americans to vote for Obama, besides their historical loyalty to Republicans, is a legal one: only registered Democrats can vote in the Democratic primary, which is now scheduled for Jan. 29. That may explain why Obama is making an appeal to them so early. — David Miller
A Big Draw For Black Voters? While making efforts to win over Cuban Americans, Obama is also placing hope in a more obvious constituency: African-Americans. And now he's saying that his appeal among black voters will not only help him, but will also make him a more electable candidate overall.
The Associated Press reports that Obama, during a campaign stop in Concord, N.H., on Monday, said black turnout would increase by 30 percent if he were the Democratic nominee, making several Southern states that have long voted Republican move into the Democratic column.
That's a bold claim, and perhaps a bit presumptuous. The many black political leaders who have already endorsed Hillary Clinton may not agree that only Obama has the power to bring African-Americans out to the polls. — David Miller
Editor's note: Pure Horserace is a daily update of political news as interpreted by the political observers at CBSNews.com. Click here to sign up for the e-mail version.
By Vaughn Ververs and David Miller