Heading into the 2008 election, the Republican Party finds itself saddled by an unpopular war, an economic recession and a national mood of pessimism about the future of the country both at home and abroad. It comes at the end of eight years of almost total control of the federal government, and from the presidential level all the way down to state and local elections, the party appears to be in dire straights.
It's so bad that, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, a generic Democratic presidential candidate beats a Republican one by a margin of 50 percent to 37 percent.
But the presumptive GOP nominee is no generic Republican candidate, and as his general election campaign launches, he's making clear that he's not running as one. Party orthodoxy is taking a back seat. John McCain, it appears, is going to be a party of one.
The self-styled maverick who once reportedly flirted with leaving the party he joined as a "foot soldier" has also now become inexorably connected to a war which hangs around the GOP like a political anchor. But rather than seek distance from that inconvenient political reality, McCain is entering into his campaign in a way that binds him even further to war, even while distancing himself from any party at all.
In a choreographed movement, McCain's campaign released its first ad of the general election just days before embarking upon a tour designed to reintroduce the candidate to the electorate. Launched in the battleground state of New Mexico, the spot once again transported the candidate back to those defining years as a prisoner of war held and tortured by the North Vietnamese.
McCain's "Service to America" tour begins Monday in Meridian, Mississippi, where he will speak about his family's long military history, stretching from service under George Washington to George W. Bush. Stops on the week-long tour include Annapolis, Maryland (and the Naval Academy his family has attended for generations) and Jacksonville, Florida - the site of both his departure to and return home from Vietnam.
The tour is billed as a biographical reintroduction to Americans but also suggests that he will not be asking for votes based on an ideological or party platform. No talk of tax cuts or health care policy. Instead, McCain is starting off his campaign by appealing to the nation on a deeply personal level. The underlying message is service. Not only his own but that which he repeatedly talks about in his speeches, urging others to serve an interest other than their own.
Critics will be quick to shrug this approach off as a nostalgic paean to a bygone era and proof of McCain's desire to continue, if not expand, a war that the majority of voters are unhappy with. But that ignores not only McCain's history but also his appeal to the kinds of voters both parties will need in November.
In 1996, the Republican Party nominated a war hero as its standard bearer. But Bob Dole was also the very embodiment of the party, a loyal servant whose ascendance had more to do with rank seniority than anything else. Republicans in that election began deserting the Dole campaign almost the minute they left San Diego's nominating convention.
This time those candidates don't have the luxury of sloughing off a longtime party fixture facing long odds in order to save their own hides. Even a glance at the GOP's outlook for regaining lost ground in the House and Senate shows that it's the brand in trouble, not the candidate at the top of the ticket. In fact, their standard-bearer may be their last, best hope.
For the Republican Party, McCain's candidacy could prove to be a godsend, despite the fact that a large segment of it fought fiercely against it. Protesting his perceived apostasies on issues ranging from taxes to immigration, conservatives rallied for every last opportunity to stop a candidate once thought to be finished. Increasingly though, even those who fought it are becoming converts to the McCain campaign. At least some GOP operatives now believe they have the best candidate they could have hoped for under the current circumstances.
With the Democratic battle continuing, the GOP is getting a head start on the general election planning. The Republican National Committee and various surrogate operations have been kicking into high gear over recent weeks, raising money and laying out organizational muscle for the battle to come. Undoubtedly a luxury, such advantages will do little to stem the overall tide running against the party.
McCain alone now represents the party's best chance to hold onto any hope of avoiding a complete blowout in November. While a "generic" Republican candidate is swamped in the polls by a Democrat, McCain fares much better when his name is inserted.
Universally, Hillary Clinton is seen as the best candidate for Republicans to run against. She has the highest negative ratings of any of the three remaining candidates. And, at this point, her unlikely nomination would almost certainly rip the very fabric of the Democratic Party's coalition.
But while some believe Barack Obama to be almost invincible in a general election matchup, McCain is holding his ground. The most recent CBS News poll shows him within five points of Obama and trailing Clinton by just two. More importantly, McCain leads among independent voters, leading Clinton among that group by 11 points and beating Obama by eight.
Campaign 2008 is shaping up to be a contest of personalities as much as party or policy. The Democrat will be a historic candidate, either the first black or woman nominee of a major party. And everything is going their way - eight years of Republican rule, a struggling economy, a war and uncertainty about the direction of the country.
But the Republican is not beginning his campaign with a series of policy speeches or a platform of ideology. John McCain is running as John McCain, the product of a family whose military service reaches back to the very foundation of the nation; a Navy pilot who spent five years as a prisoner of war in one of the most controversial and unpopular wars in the country's history; a politician who has earned both the contempt and grudging admiration of his own party. Most importantly, a "maverick" whose membership in the very party he now leads has been questioned.
Someone who has long been accused of being both a shill for his party and a thorn in its side now has to carry its banner into the presidential election. John McCain is beginning his effort by running on his own, not as a member of a political party. And a party of one may be the only thing standing between Republicans and disaster.