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The Making of the President: John McCain
Comments () | Published February 1, 2007
But in the terrible months that followed the departure of American troops from Iraq, McCain’s stance had not looked all that bad. He had warned that a sectarian bloodbath would follow US troop withdrawals, and it had. He had warned that the Kurds might declare an independent Kurdistan in the north and that Turkey might invade, and they had and it did. He had warned that the loss of Iraq would destabilize the entire region, and now the entire region was destabilized.

War was terrible and it took terrible sacrifice, McCain felt, and George Bush’s biggest mistake had been to fail to prepare the nation for the sacrifice of blood and treasure that war requires. You could not do wars halfway. If you had the courage to start them, you had to have the courage to see them through. “To have courage for whatever comes in life—everything lies in that,” McCain had told a reporter profiling him for Seventeen. “That’s a great line,” the reporter had said. “Is it yours?”

Almost, McCain had said with a smile. It’s Mother Teresa’s.

He had skipped Iowa in 2000 because he was against ethanol and agricultural subsidies and because it cost a lot more money to fly to Iowa than it did to New Hampshire, and he didn’t have a lot of money. It had paid off. He had beat George W. Bush in New Hampshire by 19 points, and the money began pouring in via the Internet. But his was a true maverick campaign, and like all maverick campaigns, it was prepared for everything but success.

He went into South Carolina without much of a plan. He would use the same enthusiasm and straight talk that he used in New Hampshire, which would surely be enough. But he ran into a buzz saw, the dirtiest primary campaign in modern times. Talk radio spread the whispers: McCain had infected his wife with syphilis, McCain had fathered a black child, McCain had been brainwashed in North Vietnam. George Bush denied any knowledge of what was taking place. The McCain team looked dazed and confused, and McCain knew he had lost when the crowds dropped away.
He never complained to his staff about South Carolina, never blamed anybody but himself. But it would not happen again, John Weaver vowed. They would never let an opponent up off the mat again, not if they had to stand on his windpipe to do it.

When McCain ran in 2000, his operating principle had been the same one that he used when he would lower himself into his jet: “Kick the tires and light the fires. To hell with the checklist. Anybody can be slow.”

In 2008, they would be slow. And methodical—raising the money, building the organization, lining up the old guard and appealing to the new. McCain could not be kept from the press, and the campaign would have to deal with that. After eight years of a president who had been packaged and sold to the public by political professionals, the people wanted authenticity. No packaging, no slickness, no hiding behind rope lines. McCain was the candidate who was real, flaws and all. If he said something, he said it because he believed it and not because it had been polled and focus-grouped (though the campaign used polls and focus groups).

Accusations that he had moved to the right and changed his positions to gain the nomination were the only accusations that still bothered him. “I’d like to tell you that I have a real thick skin because I’ve been in politics for a long time,” he said. “But I don’t.”

He had to run in Iowa this time because he was the front-runner, and front-runners have to run everywhere. The pundits expected him to lose Iowa. Social conservatives dominated the Republican caucus, and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Sam Brownback of Kansas had those voters tied up. Besides, McCain still refused to cave on agriculture subsidies. But McCain’s Iowa staff pointed out that the previous five contested Republican Iowa caucuses were won by George W. Bush in 2000, Robert Dole in 1996 and 1988, George H.W. Bush in 1980, and Gerald Ford in 1976. And the social conservatives hadn’t liked any of them.
As it turned out, Huckabee and Brownback split the social-conservative vote, and neither got a good ticket out of Iowa. It was McCain in first, Mitt Romney second, Huckabee third, Brownback fourth, and Rudy Giuliani a distant fifth. Giuliani just didn’t play well away from New York. He would drop out after New Hampshire, deciding that being a national hero and making lots of money were preferable to answering questions from reporters about former police commissioner Bernie Kerik. And so the curse held: No elected New York mayor had ever gone on to higher office. Though most New York mayors felt there was no higher office.

McCain caught a break when the Republicans decided to go along with the Democrats and make Nevada the next stop on the campaign trail. Nevada was, as McCain pointed out, just across the Grand Canyon from Arizona. And Hispanic voters had not forgotten McCain’s championing of a guest-worker program (which Congress had still failed to pass). McCain took Nevada. But New Hampshire was still where campaigns were made or broken. And New Hampshire loved John McCain.

Authenticity, that is what his campaign pounded on. Even if you didn’t like everything McCain said, you knew the guy was real. Mitt Romney? Mitt Romney was so slick, he could run across the keyboard of a piano and not sound a note. “Mitt Romney is a chameleon,” a McCain staffer told the Union Leader. “You put Mitt Romney on a plaid rock, and he’ll turn plaid.” Still, Romney came from bordering Massachusetts and looked presidential and sounded presidential, and he came in a strong second. Too strong a second.

Romney had to be stopped, and South Carolina would be the stopping place. The whispering campaign that had been directed against McCain in 2000 was now directed against Romney. Conservative talk radio was filled with tales of Romney’s love for gay people and how he was a secret polygamist. And not just with two wives—try five. And three of them under 16 years old! It was all madness, but madness had played in South Carolina before.

McCain denounced the whispering campaign and was confident his staff had no part in it, but when South Carolina was over, Romney lay gasping on the mat. Even Romney’s subsequent win in Michigan was not enough to revive his campaign. The party rallied around McCain.

The public was paying little attention to the Republican primaries, however. The real show was on the Democratic side. Barack Obama and John Edwards were engaged in a mad dash to flank Hillary Rodham Clinton to the left. (There was no point in trying to flank her to the right; if you flanked her to the right, you were a Republican.)

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 02/01/2007 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles