Right Turn in July Put McCain on Unfamiliar Path

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008

John McCain's campaign was meandering through the summer, one day focusing on the Everglades, the next on Iraq and hardly ever on Barack Obama, when a small group of top advisers took the candidate aside and told him to make a choice.

You can keep running a comfortable, "play it safe" campaign -- hanging out with reporters in the back of the bus, talking about climate change and handling Obama with kid gloves -- and lose by a respectable two or three percentage points, they said.

Or, they told the former 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 O. Graham (R-S.C.).

Starting in July, McCain largely abandoned the well-known brand he had built over a decade: a moderate, steady, experienced maverick whose great political skill was in convincing independent voters that he was not just another Republican.

He kicked the 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 that he had once ridiculed from the Senate floor.

On Tuesday, McCain lost, if not in a popular-vote landslide, then in an electoral one, winning 163 electoral votes to Obama's 349.

In the campaign's view, McCain's downfall had more to do with a September surprise than with strategy or tactics. Just when his internal polls showed him taking a slight lead over Obama, 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 said 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 financial rescue proposal. To voters, he seemed to be just another Republican who was part of the problem, they said.

Money was another problem for the campaign. McCain started the general election essentially broke, with 38 staff members at his headquarters and no money for ads. Even with the help of the Republican National Committee, McCain was unable to match the hundreds of millions of dollars Obama had at his disposal.

McCain's pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate also called his judgment into question, those close to him said. His staff engaged in a months-long verbal war with the news media. And his campaign had spent no time developing a comprehensive economic plan.

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