Can McCain Come Back?

By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, July 12, 2007

Is it possible to revive John McCain's comatose presidential candidacy? Yes, say his loyalists, but only because he got rid of his campaign manager and his longtime political adviser. Without him sadly cleaning house in his campaign this week, McCain's decade-old dream would be finished. Now at least he has a chance, however theoretical and remote.

Terry Nelson, the departed campaign manager, is blamed for inadequate fundraising and profligate spending: $44 million raised and $42 million spent. The sins of political adviser John Weaver, who served as chief campaign strategist, are less definitive but more profound. According to the testimony of McCain insiders, Weaver was a vindictive presence who cast a pall over a campaign that he effectively controlled.

Yet McCain's precipitous decline cannot be laid at the feet of two aides. The senator himself, long ago noting that he had "caught lightning in a bottle" in 2000, questioned whether he could replicate that magical campaign. The magic stemmed from McCain's allure as a dissident who for years had sniped at the GOP elephant. Now, as 2007 began, he was asking the elephant to embrace him.

It once appeared that the elephant would comply. In December, I wrote prematurely that McCain was beginning to look like the anointed nominee the Republican Party always prefers. The signal was a Dec. 8 reception for McCain attended by corporate representatives and other lobbyists and hosted by Senate Republican Whip Trent Lott, who takes pride in picking his party's successful nominee a year in advance. McCain was the front-runner, leading even in the key early state of Iowa (which he skipped in 2000).

The decline was precipitous, typified by McCain's fifth-place finish in the Pennsylvania Republican State Committee's straw poll on June 30. Inside the political community, the blame was consigned to tactical error. Nelson, a key operative in President Bush's 2004 reelection, ran McCain as a nationwide, establishment candidate in the mold of Bob Dole and the Bushes. That course takes a lot of money, and McCain for months was warned by friendly outsiders about a fiscal train wreck. The campaign's cash flow dried up when his sponsorship of immigration reform ("amnesty") virtually ended small contributions.

Weaver's negative impact is more difficult to define. He has been a foreboding personality, engaged in a poisonous rivalry with Bush adviser Karl Rove. After the 2000 election, Weaver appeared to change parties -- working for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark. He was back with McCain for the '08 campaign, controlling entree to the candidate and keeping away people with whom Weaver had past grievances. Rick Davis, an experienced political operative, gave up his lobbying practice to work full time for McCain, but he was kept at arm's length by Weaver.

As he left for a Fourth of July visit to Iraq, McCain was ready to fire Weaver. Mark Salter, administrative assistant and a close adviser to the senator, prevailed on McCain -- tearfully, by one account -- to retain Weaver. By the time McCain returned, he had decided Nelson and Weaver had to go, with Salter put on virtual inactive status.

McCain is not the first presidential candidate to begin on top and fade quickly. In 1967, George Romney was the early Republican favorite, but he never made it to the '68 primaries. Ed Muskie was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 1972 but finished fourth in early primaries. In 2004, front-running Democrat Howard Dean was shot down after the opening Iowa caucuses. None ever recovered.

McCain's slimmed-down campaign will concentrate on the early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Davis, the new campaign manager, is far more adept than Weaver was at singing McCain's praises. McCain supporters hope the candidate's eloquent support for the Iraq intervention will earn him backing from the Republican base.

The hope of reviving his campaign through advocacy for an unpopular war typifies the perfect storm afflicting John McCain. He has not been forgiven for apostasy from Republican orthodoxy on campaign finance, global warming and stem cell research. His pledge not to raise taxes alienates him from his former idolaters in the media. McCain's allies will be scrutinizing the polls. If he is running fourth at year's end, they say, the dream is over.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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