Back to Basics

By Michael D. Shear
Thursday, December 13, 2007

John McCain's best days as a presidential candidate were in his 2000 race against George W. Bush, when he offered himself as a straight-talking maverick and nearly stole the Republican nomination from the anointed Texas governor.

The McCain of December 2007 is very much like the McCain of December 1999. He's strapped for cash, and everyone is betting against him. The people around him -- and the candidate himself -- somehow believe that he can still win the GOP nod, perhaps simply by force of his own will.

But this is not how it was supposed to be.

Ask his longtime advisers about the nostalgia for 2000 and they will quickly point out one irrefutable fact: In the end, he lost. As satisfying as the insurgent shtick may have been, it didn't propel McCain to the nomination against a well-funded, super-organized challenger. That's why this campaign was initially designed to mimic Bush's. For four years, the senator worked to build the kind of operation that Bush employed against him. He courted Bush fundraisers and loyalists. He wooed, and eventually hired, some of Bush's top advisers -- even tapping a former Bush aide to serve as his campaign manager. He hired every consultant he could find.

And for a time, it worked. At the beginning of the year, McCain was the clear Republican front-runner, having earned the admiration of high-dollar donors and the Washington establishment.

But the sense of inevitability that the campaign was designed to create didn't last long, perhaps because, from the beginning, something seemed different -- and less appealing -- about McCain.

As he rolled out the "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus in March of this year, he seemed uncomfortable in the role of establishment figure and front-runner. He was defending the president's troop-increase strategy, which made him seem even less like the guy who took Bush on eight years earlier. And the lavish campaign spending -- his initial budget was well over $100 million -- undercut his reputation as an enemy of pork.

And then the immigration debate happened.

McCain's advisers believed that a new immigration bill backed by McCain, Bush and Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy would get 70 votes in the Senate and would be lauded as a bipartisan effort. They thought McCain would be hailed by both sides.

Instead, on radio talk shows, on the Internet and in local Republican meetings, conservatives lambasted McCain as a tool of liberals and a promoter of amnesty for illegal immigrants. The beating drove down his poll numbers and dried up his fundraising. With the money no longer coming in, his expensive campaign ate through what he had raised in the first quarter, leaving little choice but to pare back his staff.

With the strategy unraveling, McCain's top advisers clashed, and several eventually left, including most of the former Bush aides who didn't have a history with McCain from 2000. There was so little money at the beginning of the summer that many observers declared McCain's campaign over.

But that may have been premature. After hunkering down, McCain rebuilt a new operation that looks remarkably similar to the original one. There are few staffers, few frills and almost none of the high-priced consultants he employed at the beginning of the year.

And even more important, the old McCain seemed to return. His plan now is simple: Win New Hampshire, where he defeated Bush by 17 percentage points in 2000. If that happens, the story will be all about his comeback. The money will pour in, and he'll go on to Michigan and South Carolina with momentum that will be unstoppable. And then to Florida and the Feb. 5 states.

It's a familiar strategy. But as his top advisers, and McCain himself, have noted: The last time he tried this, it failed.

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