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.
"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; that many people considered his campaign dishonorable and focused on small things; that he wasn't seen as presidential and the right person to have in a crisis; and that the broad center in American politics had turned against him, I would have laughed in your face," said John Weaver, his 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."Push to Attack Obama's Character
As the national conventions neared and Obama took his much-ballyhooed 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 F. Kerry a "flip-flopper."
Despite the stated willingness to take risks, the campaign often appeared to waver about how far to go against its rival. McCain's refusal to use Obama's relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. and Obama's 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 lingered as a problem.
"It kind of muted people's willingness to make character attacks," said Chris LaCivita, a Republican operative who formed a group that ran the first ads about Obama's connection to Vietnam War-era radical William Ayers.
At the same time, McCain was stressing his conservative credentials, hoping to heighten the contrast with Obama. McCain's straightforward answers during a religious forum at Saddleback Church in California helped, as did his forceful response to the Russian invasion of Georgia.
In the process, though, McCain was pushed to the right, and his staff started to worry that he was losing his identity. Their one chance, they thought, to reestablish his credentials as a maverick reformer was to make a bold vice presidential pick.
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the Republican turned independent, emerged as a popular option, but his positions on social issues were deemed problematic. Graham pushed Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) 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 former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's anti-McCain statements from the primaries. And Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was viewed as a likable, but not bold, option.
That left Palin, whom 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 thought Palin would 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, though, only the Republican base remained enthusiastic.
"The Palin pick was a base pick in a non-base election," Weaver said. "In this media world that we live in, you can't take someone who has not had any exposure, who had not had any vetting, public and private, and strap her to a rocket."When the Stock Market Tanked
Schmidt was with Palin, watching on a JetBlue charter's in-seat television screen with growing horror.
The cable news networks had a split screen: On one side was the tanking stock market, already 700 points down. On the other were Republicans, whining about how the economic stimulus package had been defeated because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had given a partisan-tinged speech.
"It was a moment of pure disaster," Schmidt recalled thinking. "The Republican Party was making the argument that we tanked the economy because Nancy Pelosi was mean to us. It was devastating."
For McCain, the economic crisis created a sense of despair.
"How could you not despair?" Graham said. "You're about to break out, and all of a sudden you've got Bush on the news every day talking about the economy."
McCain advisers thought their candidate would be criticized no matter what he did in the face of the crisis: If he continued to campaign, he would be blamed for failing to help pass the rescue package; if he returned to Washington, he would be accused of inserting politics into a national crisis.
"At that point, in the middle of an economic catastrophe, as a political matter, the campaign was check-mated," said Schmidt, who rejected criticism that the problem was McCain's erratic response.
The 96 hours after McCain announced he was suspending his campaign were nearly fatal -- in part because of little mistakes such as criticizing Obama for "phoning it in" while telling reporters that McCain would stay in his Crystal City headquarters "on the phone" with lawmakers a few miles away.
And McCain's top strategists tip their hat to Democrats, who they say effectively sold a story about how McCain's intervention helped unravel a pending deal. Few Republicans on Capitol Hill rushed to his defense.
"When Democrats attacked, Republicans were in the fetal position," a top adviser said. "It was clear at that moment, in the most vivid way, that John McCain stood alone in this race. It was a moment when you saw the defeated Republican Party, bankrupt and ruined, facing off against the resurgent Democratic Party."Two Late Campaign Gifts
As the economic crisis deepened and his poll numbers dropped, McCain found himself short of cash and unable to penetrate through the massive Obama ad buys. McCain started shifting, pulling out of Michigan, for example, to divert staff and advertising money elsewhere.
That McCain still had a chance to win was the result of two late gifts -- both from men named Joe.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s comment about the likelihood that foreign adversaries would "test" a President Obama gave McCain the chance to change the subject to experience, once again making the case that voters should worry about entrusting the country to a junior senator.
And Obama's remark to Joe Wurzelbacher -- a.k.a. Joe the Plumber -- about "spreading the wealth" offered McCain a last chance to draw a sharp contrast with Obama, this time over the issue of taxes.
Both proved too little, too late. In public surveys in the final days, voters gave Obama the clear edge on both leadership and the economy.
As he conceded to Obama on Tuesday night, McCain seemed to acknowledge the difficulties in his campaign, thanking his staff members 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."