John McCain's campaign was meandering through the summer, one day focusing on the Everglades, the next on Iraq and hardly ever on Democrat Barack Obama, when his top advisers took him aside and told him to make a choice.
WASHINGTON — John McCain’s campaign was meandering through the summer, one day focusing on the Everglades, the next on Iraq and hardly ever on Democrat Barack Obama, when his top advisers took him aside and told him to make a choice.
You can keep running a comfortable, “play it safe” campaign — hanging out with the media on the back of the bus, talking about climate change and handling Obama with kid gloves — and lose by a respectable 2 or 3 percentage points, they said.
Or, they told the former Navy pilot and war hero, he could authorize a disciplined, high-risk approach that would include aggressive attacks on Obama’s liberal record and direct appeals to the Republican base. His strategists said such a move provided a chance for victory or an Obama landslide.
“It is not my goal to run this race and be admired as the maverick that lost,” McCain told them, according to his closest friend, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
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So starting in July, McCain largely abandoned the well-known brand he had built over a decade as a moderate, steady, experienced maverick whose great political skill had been in convincing independent voters he was not just another Republican.
He kicked reporters off his bus, started talking about oil drilling, attacked Obama’s character, embraced conservative policies and eventually bet his White House hopes on a tax-cutting philosophy he once had ridiculed from the Senate floor.
On Tuesday, McCain lost, if not in a popular-vote landslide, then in an electoral one, winning only 163 electoral votes, with two states still counting.
In the official view of the campaign, McCain’s downfall had more to do with a September Surprise than strategy or tactics. Just when his internal polls showed him taking a slight lead over Obama in mid-September, the global economic collapse sent the “right-track” numbers — the percentage of people who thought the country was headed in the right direction — to an impossibly low 5 percent.
“What happened beginning in the middle of September was a historic economic event, an economic catastrophe unprecedented in modern politics and unprecedented since the Great Depression,” said senior adviser Steve Schmidt, who took control of the campaign as part of the July changes.
Schmidt added that McCain was dealt “the worst deck of cards that anybody has ever been dealt in terms of running a presidential campaign.”
But many of those who have been closest to McCain said the financial crisis was politically devastating because the campaign’s new strategy had robbed McCain of his image as an independent-minded lawmaker who could be trusted to bring an objective view to a major issue, such as Bush’s bailout proposal.
Money was another problem. McCain started the general election essentially broke, with only 38 employees at his headquarters and no money for ads. Even with the help of the Republican National Committee, McCain never was able to match the hundreds of millions Obama had at his disposal.
McCain’s pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also called his judgment into question, those close to him said. His staff engaged in a months-long oral war with the media. And his campaign had spent no time developing a comprehensive economic plan.
“If you had told me two years ago that John McCain would end his active national political life perceived by many as the candidate of the special interests tied to lobbyists … [and] that the broad center in American politics had turned against him, I would have laughed in your face,” said John Weaver, a longtime friend who resigned from the campaign in a power struggle last year.
“That’s not who he is,” Weaver said. “But that’s the campaign that he chose.”
Pushed to the right
As the national conventions neared and Obama took his overseas trip, McCain’s assault on Obama’s character and policies intensified. But the campaign never seemed to settle on a single attack, as Republicans had in 2004 when they labeled Sen. John Kerry a “flip-flopper.”
And the campaign often appeared to waver about how far to go. McCain’s refusal to use Obama’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his long-standing positions on campaign finance discouraged the kind of third-party attacks that had worked against Kerry in 2004. How to deal with Obama’s race also always lingered as a problem.
McCain began stressing his conservative credentials, hoping to heighten the contrast with Obama. His answers during a religious forum at Saddleback Church helped, as did his forceful response to the Russian invasion of Georgia.
In the process, though, he was pushed to the right, and his staff started to worry he was losing his identity. Their one chance, they believed, to re-establish his credentials as a maverick reformer was to make a bold vice-presidential pick.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Republican-turned-independent, emerged as a popular option, but his positions on gun control and other social issues were deemed problematic. Graham pushed Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman as a “transformational choice.” But once his name leaked and conservatives reacted negatively, it was over.
Aides thought Democrats would have a field day with Mitt Romney’s anti-McCain statements from the primary. And Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was viewed as a likable, but not bold, option.
That left Palin, who McCain viewed as a like-minded reformer and maverick. “It was a game-changer in the sense that it married history with history,” Graham said. “We had to do something different. We had to make a bold pick.”
McCain believed Palin would do three things: help him reach out to Democratic women, reinforce his maverick image and excite his base. At first, the pick did all three. In the end, only the Republican base remained enthused.
As he conceded Tuesday night, McCain seemed to acknowledge the difficulties in his campaign, thanking his staff who “fought so hard and valiantly, month after month, in what at times seemed to be the most challenged campaign in modern times.”
But he was unwilling to second-guess himself. “I don’t know what more we could have done to try to win this election,” he said. “I’ll leave that to others to determine. Every candidate makes mistakes, and I’m sure I made my share of them. But I won’t spend a moment of the future regretting what might have been.”