He's back on the Straight Talk Express, on a snow-covered road from the offices of the Union Leader (for a post-endorsement thank you) to a manufacturing plant in Windham (for yet another question-and-answer session) to an evening town hall (catering to those more youthful MTV voters). is not new at this. And yet, this is all new. It's definitely not 2000, when he was the maverick up against front-runner George W. Bush. This time, he's the ex-front-runner, struggling to see if he--like some kind of gravity-defying soufflé--can rise twice.
It's hard. But not just for McCain. All GOP candidates are struggling because their voters are (uncharacteristically) still figuring out what they want. Now that the Republican Party has finally broken free from its proclivity to simply nominate the next fellow in line for the job, what comes next remains a mystery: Will the party's voters be led by their anger over illegal immigration, and punish a candidate who does not cater to it, like McCain? Are they ready to throw out GOP economic orthodoxy and rally around a populist like former Arkansas Gov.? Or, does the party decide to abandon its social conservatism and pick 9/11 hero ? Or go for the CEO model in ?
In truth, a large group of the early-state voters remain undecided because what they're really looking for is something else entirely: a leader. Someone likable, who can inspire in a time of war and solve problems at home. Most of all, someone to trust. "I want a leader who speaks from the heart," says Mike Flathers, a retired civil servant waiting at the Windham Junction General Store last week to greet his choice, Romney. "I want someone who can get things done."
Touchstone. But how to judge that? Six months ago, most everyone thought the unpopular war in Iraq--and McCain's support for the surge in troops--would doom his candidacy. Now that the surge has been widely acclaimed as a success, McCain is fine on the war. But he's got a different problem: his support for a measure calling for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. It dogs him at every town hall meeting and in every debate. It dried up his funding. And now, he waxes philosophical about it, describing the issue as a simple matter so crucial to this campaign: trust. "We always said we wanted to secure the borders first," he tells me. "But there was no trust or confidence that the government will do what it says. And it has hurt me. I have never seen an issue like this, as polarizing or as emotional."
Immigration has become the emblematic issue of the GOP race--challenging candidates to lead on a thorny matter of real importance. "It's a touchstone issue," Romney says, in rare agreement with McCain. "Are we a nation of laws? Or are we completely out of control? I think in Iraq they've seen things didn't go the way we thought. In Katrina, we didn't do a very good job. And voters look at immigration and say, 'Why can't Washington get anything done right?'"
He's right. But here's the problem for GOP voters longing for leaders: The candidates haven't exactly been churning out solutions to the immigration mess, aside from the build-the-fence pablum. At least McCain tried to get something done in Congress. Romney and Giuliani, on the other hand, bicker over who's the toughest guy in town. And last week, Romney had to sheepishly fire his landscape company because it hired illegal immigrants--and that's a no-no when you're trying to be a hard-liner. That hint of hypocrisy did not stop him, however, from jabbing Huckabee for calling for tuition tax breaks for the children of illegal immigrants in Arkansas. "That's a very big difference between us," Romney says. "I think it is a major mistake on his part."
In the end, it may well be. But Huckabee takes a different tack. "We're a better country than to punish the children for what their parent did," he told Romney at the last GOP debate. And when McCain was questioned yet again about his support for immigration reform last week, he said: "I hope we can have a national discussion on this issue that is respectful. These people may have come to our country illegally ... .But they, too, are God's children."
McCain and Huckabee could both suffer for their clarity. After all, tough talk is always appealing in the presidential arena. But straight talk--as well as honest leadership--is out there, just waiting for its day.
By Gloria Borger