By The Politico's Jonathan Martin and Mike Allen
Six months ago, the consensus among many leading Republicans was that the party's presidential nomination was Sen. John McCain's to lose. By outward appearances, he has done just that.
Republicans inside and outside his campaign say his epic descent from front-runner to political life support was triggered by a poisonous political environment, an undisciplined candidate and a campaign with all the chaos and casualness of McCain's happy-go-lucky 2000 bid — but without the excitement and charm.
McCain, a war hero running in wartime, is effectively broke: His campaign reported a paltry $2 million on hand on June 30, and Republican sources say he has debt that wipes that out. McCain's fiscal straits highlight a basic flaw of his campaign: It was based on a high-power, high-cost strategy that would roll over the competition, but he never demonstrated the capacity to fund this approach.
But even if he can somehow raise meaningful amounts of cash in the months ahead, people close to the campaign point to intractable problems that could hobble any comeback.
This story is based on numerous interviews Wednesday with people with firsthand knowledge of the campaign, most of whom said they could share candid views only if they were not identified by name. Most McCain associates said the news that exploded earlier this week — the departure of McCain's chief strategist and other top aides — came as little surprise to them: They have known for months that the Arizonan's candidacy was in a perilous state.
"It feels at times that somebody has put a voodoo curse on us," said one McCain loyalist. "The timing has been consistently bad."
After starting the race leading in most every poll in the early primary states, McCain quickly staggered under broad opposition to his embrace of President Bush's Iraq policy, combined with intense conservative opposition to the senator's immigrant-friendly plans for overhauling the nation's border laws.
"He was being whipsawed," said a McCain associate near the center of the campaign. This aide described a candidate battered on one side by the moderates who fueled his 2000 run but who loathed the war while he was drawing the wrath of many core Republicans over his immigration stance. And as the nomination contest became engaged and the "amnesty" issue came to the fore, Republicans were reminded why they had long been skeptical of the maverick.
This sour tide might have proven fatal on its own. But McCain was in trouble even within the walls of his campaign headquarters, where personal rivalries, poor planning and excessive spending gave him little chance to defeat his external demons.
"The political department was such a mess that we couldn't get Sportsmen for McCain in Iowa to Iowa events when we wanted to talk about guns," said one former McCain staffer. "The chain of command was almost tenuous — you didn't know where to go. These problems were coming up — little ones — and they weren't being fixed."
Perhaps most damaging of all, no one was clearly in charge. There was a campaign manager, a chief strategist, a senior adviser and a chief executive — an unwieldy team riven by mistrust and rivalries.
"Without question, the problem was too many cooks in the kitchen," the former staff member said. "The history books will write this as a power struggle." Regardless of which side of the personal and political disputes they sat on, the McCain associates who were interviewed offered remarkably similar diagnoses of the campaign's overarching problems.
Many of his aides agreed that a daunting obstacle was the refusal of the most motivated activists to recognize him as one of them. Simply put, it's difficult to capture the Republican nomination when Republicans mistrust you.
"After 2000, there were such hard feelings about him from the Bush campaign," said a McCain adviser. "We were able to patch that up here in Washington. But out in the hinterlands, they didn't get over it."
"No," this aide concluded, "they didn't trust him."
McCain's most appealing and most self-damaging attribute has always been his propensity to shoot from the hip. It's what endeared him to so many in the news media in his 2000 campaign and what made him into the household name that he would become. But his willingness to offer "straight talk" that was critical of his fellow Republicans and his eagerness to partner with Democrats made him suspect in the eyes of many within his own party. Another McCain source pointed to an anecdote posted Wednesday on the blog TownHall.com in which McCain, speaking at a private event, accepted praise for his little-appreciated anti-abortion stance — only to remind the conservative crowd that he also supported stem cell research.
"How many times have I seen that?" mused this person. "He just cannot keep himself on message, he just can't keep himself from telling people where he disagrees with them."
While McCain veterans agree that the candidate's support for the war dried up some of their fundraising with fickle donors, they agree that his disagreement with the GOP base on immigration hurt most.
Just as McCain had started to regain some of his strength in the polls — based in part on his unwavering stance on the Iraq war — a Senate compromise was struck on an immigration reform package that included what critics deemed "amnesty." And McCain, who had helped engineer the deal, became the public face of what so many grass-roots Republicans thought was the precise problem with their Washington-centric leadership.
"Those conservatives he picked up on the war became alienated with him on immigration," laments a third senior McCain source. "They remembered why they didn't like him."
As immigration sent him plummeting in the polls, well-heeled contributors took note and shied away. "The last part of May through June, $200,000 events would turn into $75,000 events," admitted a well-connected McCain source.
GOP strategist Chris LaCivita said immigration hurt McCain with major donors because of the hit he took in polls, but also undermined him with grass-roots givers. "People in states won't give money to candidates that are opposing such a key component of their core beliefs — no matter what his record on other issues may be," LaCivita said. "To blame McCain's problems on spending is a cop-out — and a denial of the obvious."
But others disagree, saying that the profligate spending McCain put toward an extensive, Bush-Cheney Inc.-like structure can't be excused.
"Why didn't McCain enter the race with $15 million in his Senate campaign account that would be readily transferable into his presidential campaign?" asks GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio. "Unless I am mistaken, he has been quietly running for the last eight years — six of which the GOP was in the majority and he was very powerful — which makes raising money easier."
Also, asks Fabrizio, "Why did they go on a hiring binge so early?" And when it became apparent that they weren't able to finance the gargantuan roster of staff and consultants they had brought on, why not make a change? "Didn't they realize after the lousy first-quarter fundraising totals that it was going to be hard to meet their goals and perhaps they needed to switch strategies and reset expectations?"
Or, as veteran consultant and former McCain backer Roger Stone put it, "Who needs 150 people on the payroll in May of '07?"
But that was the strategy from the start — to run a campaign based in part on inevitability and that bought up much of the talent while scaring off others from signing on elsewhere. Campaign sources said McCain agreed to a budget that called for raising $120 million by Jan. 1, 2008, with $50 million of that to be collected in the first six months.
"It was the decision that everybody agreed upon," said a top source. "Everybody wanted to have a front-runner campaign."
But there was no written plan that allowed McCain to raise that much, the sources said. Now some longtime McCainiacs are bitter that they didn't just stick with what made the candidate in the first place.
"They set up a national campaign, à la Bush 2000, and that won't work," said Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire backer since that first campaign and former state party chair there. "McCain works best with the 2000 approach."
McCain loyalists point out that the senator was never comfortable as the candidate of the establishment and has thrived as an underdog before. With six months until a vote is cast, they can imagine him regaining his footing, especially if his rivals stumble. "Everything is stripped away, and what's left is McCain himself," said one strategist for the campaign. "It's the man in the arena. He is now totally unplugged."
Even the campaign's few remaining optimists recognize the considerable obstacles to McCain becoming the Comeback Kid.
It's the habits he learned in 2000 that so imperiled — and still threaten — his candidacy this race.
As one longtime GOP operative sympathetic to McCain said about immigration: "He could have voted his convictions. He didn't have to lead the parade. People told him — and he didn't listen. Statesmanship has its limitations."
By Jonathan Martin and Mike Allen
© 2007 The Politico & Politico.com, a division of Allbritton Communications Company