NOT EVEN CLOSE

Sorry, Senator. Let's Salvage What We Can.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) holds a campaign rally in Woodbridge, Virginia.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) holds a campaign rally in Woodbridge, Virginia. (Chip Somodevilla - Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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By David Frum
Sunday, October 26, 2008

There are many ways to lose a presidential election. John McCain is losing in a way that threatens to take the entire Republican Party down with him.

A year ago, the Arizona senator's team made a crucial strategic decision. McCain would run on his (impressive) personal biography. On policy, he'd hew mostly to conservative orthodoxy, with a few deviations -- most notably, his support for legalization for illegal immigrants. But this strategy wasn't yielding results in the general election. So in August, McCain tried a bold new gambit: He would reach out to independents and women with an exciting and unexpected vice presidential choice.

That didn't work out so well either. Gov. Sarah Palin connected with neither independents nor women. She did, however, ignite the Republican base, which has come to support her passionately. And so, in this last month, the McCain campaign has

Palinized itself to make the most of its last asset. To fire up the Republican base, the McCain team has hit at Barack Obama as an alien, a radical and a socialist.

Sure enough, the base has responded. After months and months of wan enthusiasm among Republicans, these last weeks have at last energized the core of the party. But there's a downside: The very same campaign strategy that has belatedly mobilized the Republican core has alienated and offended the great national middle, which was the only place where the 2008 election could have been won.

I could pile up the poll numbers here, but frankly . . . it's too depressing. You have to go back to the Watergate era to see numbers quite so horrible for the GOP.

McCain's awful campaign is having awful consequences down the ballot. I spoke a little while ago to a senior Republican House member. "There is not a safe Republican seat in the country," he warned. "I don't mean that we're going to lose all of them. But we could lose any of them."

In the Senate, things look, if possible, even worse.

The themes and messages that are galvanizing the crowds for Palin are bleeding Sens. John Sununu in New Hampshire, Gordon Smith in Oregon, Norm Coleman in Minnesota and Susan Collins in Maine. The Palin approach might have been expected to work better in more traditionally conservative states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, but they have not worked well enough to compensate for the weak Republican economic message at a moment of global financial crisis. Result: the certain loss of John Warner's Senate seat in Virginia, the probable loss of Elizabeth Dole's in North Carolina, an unexpectedly tough fight for Saxby Chambliss's in Georgia -- and an apparent GOP surrender in Colorado, where it looks as if the National Republican Senatorial Committee has already pulled its ads from the air.

The fundraising challenge only makes things worse. The Republican senatorial and congressional committees have badly underperformed compared with their Democratic counterparts -- and the Republican National Committee, which has done well, is directing its money toward the presidential campaign, rather than to local races. (It was RNC funds, not McCain '08 money, that paid the now-famous $150,000 for Palin's campaign wardrobe, for example.) This is a huge mistake.

In these last days before the vote, Republicans need to face some strategic realities. Our resources are limited, and our message is failing. We cannot fight on all fronts. We are cannibalizing races that we must win and probably can win in order to help a national campaign that is almost certainly lost. In these final 10 days, our goal should be: senators first.

A beaten party needs a base from which to recover. In 1993, our Republican base was found in the states and the cities. We had the governorships of California, Michigan and Wisconsin in 1993, and Rudy Giuliani won the New York mayor's race later that year. The reform we delivered at the state and local levels contrasted acutely with the shambles of President Clinton's first two years -- and helped us win both houses of Congress in 1994.


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