John McCain's Remarkable Turnaround

Republican presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., listens as President Bush speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
It was a sweltering mid-August afternoon at the Iowa State Fair, and John McCain, his face smeared with a whitish sunblock and his shirt stained with sweat, was not a happy warrior.

As an aide searched for a scrap of shade for her boss, the 71-year-old Arizona senator stood amid hay bales at the Des Moines Register candidate soapbox, rushed through a three-minute speech decrying pork-barrel spending and defending his support of the Iraq war -- "I would much rather lose a campaign than lose a war" -- and took a few questions before high-tailing it out of the sun-baked Hawkeye State.

At that moment, it seemed that the formerly highflying candidate would, indeed, lose the campaign. His 50-state quest for the White House had just collapsed as top staffers resigned and offices were shuttered. His bank account, once fat with $24 million, was all but empty. To top it off, the former Navy fighter pilot finished an embarrassing 10th out of 11 candidates in Iowa's GOP presidential straw poll days before, besting only a fellow named John Cox, whom nobody had heard of. (Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney finished first; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, second.)

With five months to go before the Iowa caucuses would open the presidential voting season, McCain's political obituaries were being written. But even on that hot summer day, quitting never entered his mind. Says McCain: "I knew that I wasn't going to drop out; you just continue and stop reading the polls. But I was willing to accept the verdict of the voters."

Brick by brick, on the cheap, and with some luck, McCain hunkered down and rebuilt his campaign. The keys to turning it around, he says, were his long-standing support of the troop surge in Iraq that succeeded in reducing violence, his September "No Surrender" bus tour in New Hampshire that focused on his support of the war and featured men who were prisoners of war with him in Vietnam, and a good post-Labor Day debate performance. "It didn't get a lot of coverage," he says of the debate, "but it was watched by a lot of people in New Hampshire."

Turnaround. It was in New Hampshire that he managed to reverse his fortunes with a primary win in early January, and on Super Tuesday the verdict of a much wider swath of voters was returned. Much to the consternation of the GOP's right flank and with the party's very conservative voters remaining divided between Romney and Huckabee, McCain put a cap on his stunning turnaround by winning nine states and capturing enough delegates to put him on a glide path to the GOP nomination. His resurgence was confirmed when Romney dropped out of the race last week after a disappointing showing on Super Tuesday. "If I fight on in my campaign," Romney said, "I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win."

McCain's victories last week, following other wins in South Carolina and Florida, came despite attacks from the likes of radio talker Rush Limbaugh and a raft of social conservatives, including influential evangelical leader James Dobson of Focus on the Family. They consider the senator a traitor to the conservative cause on issues including his support of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, his leading role in campaign finance reform, and his efforts on immigration reform that included a path toward citizenship for illegal aliens.

But by cobbling together support from the party's liberal, moderate, and somewhat conservative members, and in particular voters who said they value character and national security, McCain managed to put together a new GOP coalition, one largely without social conservatives who have long played starring roles in Republican elections. That coalition (with help from independent voters) not only allowed him to assert last week that he's ready to "wrap this thing up" but also raised questions about whether his success without the support of the far right represents a post-Reagan revolution or, at the least, a major realignment within a fractured and demoralized party.

McCain, never a warrior in the culture wars, though he opposes abortion, scoffed at the notion of revolution. "I have a very strong conservative record," he says, and he simply wants to bring Republicans back around to conservative principles, particularly on spending. "We basically alienated our Republican base that cares about fiscal discipline by the spending spree and the corruption over the last many years," he says. "We de-energized part of our Republican base." Some party stalwarts have suggested that a McCain presidency would look more like that of the first President Bush, with some moderates in decision-making positions but no leftward movement on issues including the war, abortion, and immigration.

Split or revolution? "John McCain is a hard-core conservative 85 percent of the time; he's more conservative than the sitting president," says Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a McCain supporter and one of only five senators to achieve a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union. "When I disagree with him, I'll fight him hard."

So what does the restiveness among social conservatives mean if not a split or revolution?

Historian Fred Siegel, who has written extensively about American politics, is among those who see the schism over McCain as all about money -- money that has flowed to social conservative leaders and those who represent them in Washington. "Politics is a business," says Siegel, "and just as Sen. Barack Obama is bad for Al Sharpton's business model, McCain is bad for people whose business it is to act as intermediaries between the social conservatives and the GOP." For them, he says, McCain's nomination could well be a revolution because "they will have lost control of the funding mechanism."

There are those in the evangelical community who say they are willing to support McCain, that his emergence is healthy. That reflects what Randy Brinson, a moderate evangelical and founder of Redeem the Vote, describes as a "ravine" between leaders like Dobson and grass-roots evangelicals, who have begun to sharply question the financial relationships between large, culturally conservative organizations and the party's money people. "So many groups have become dependent on high-network donors to give money to their causes that these people have been co-opted in ways I haven't seen in 30 years," says Brinson, a Huckabee supporter who says he'll vote for McCain if he's the nominee. "The grass roots is revolting against this leadership."

Though the roiling over a potential McCain nomination may be more of a battle within the evangelical community and its prospects of diminished influence than within the party writ large, that doesn't mean it's something McCain can ignore. He's going to need a united party to win in the fall, says GOP pollster and strategist Whit Ayres. "The question is whether he'll unite them, or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama unites them," says Ayres, who predicts that a vast majority of social conservatives will choose not to sit out the election, as their leaders have threatened.

McCain has already begun an aggressive outreach. He was cordially received last week when he laid out his conservative bona fides before the influential Conservative Political Action Conference, which has been critical of him and whose attendees were urged not to boo his speech. "I appreciate very much your courtesy to me today," said McCain. "We should do this more often." He's begun to open up communication with conservative radio talkers like Limbaugh and is hoping to roll out endorsements from conservative leaders like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Will he modify his positions on issues like stem cell research to satisfy the base? "Of course not," he says. "I am laying out my record, how I view my principles, and I will argue that we are very close together on those." To be sure, he has some convincing to do.
By Liz Halloran