In a year of change, McCain's transformation didn't work

WASHINGTON — In January, when Arizona Sen. John McCain was clawing his way back into the race for the Republican nomination, the picture he drew to set himself apart from his opponents was as crisp as the New Hampshire air.

Cavorting with Joe Lieberman, his favorite independent Democrat and regaling voters at town hall meetings with tales of breaking from his party, McCain offered Republicans a route back to the White House: a clean break from President Bush, without sacrificing their fundamental conservatism.

Today, however, after his second failed attempt at the White House, McCain's self-portrait isn't nearly so clear.

Over the past 11 months, as he struggled through the Republicans' worst political climate since Watergate, McCain appeared to jettison many of the trappings that had made him an icon, and that had won him the GOP nomination in the first place — the cheerful spontaneity, the appeal for bipartisanship, the way he followed his own compass, rather than his party's demands.

Rather than angling toward moderate swing voters in the general election, as every winning candidate has done since Richard Nixon, McCain played to the right — with "Drill, Baby, Drill," Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate and the sorts of personal attacks against Sen. Barack Obama that he deplored when he was the target in the 2000 primary.

Mac, always edgy, now carried a knife.

And rather than helping him counter Obama's chief claim that a vote for McCain, 72, was a vote for Bush, at times his style and substance seemed to confirm it.

"He kind of did remake himself for this general election, and he remade himself in a way that did not appeal to the American public," said Pat Kenney, a political scientist at Arizona State University who has followed McCain for 20 years.

• • •

All campaigns have turning points, and McCain's had several. The first was his decision to forgo the Iowa caucuses and bet his nomination on New Hampshire. The gamble paid handsomely.

Others, however, did not.

Picking Palin. His decision, announced just before the Republican National Convention, galvanized social conservatives in a way McCain alone never could.

It also gave him a bump with independents who liked her folksy charm and outsider persona. Yet, as a first-term governor of Alaska and a former small-town mayor, Palin, 44, undermined McCain's ability to attack Obama, 47, as inexperienced.

Several shaky TV interviews underscored just how much of a novice she was. While she drew huge crowds in Ohio, Florida and other battlegrounds — bigger, in fact, than McCain — polls going into the election found that many voters were voting against McCain because of her.

"The fundamentals of the economy are strong." Nothing articulated McCain's struggle to find a cogent message on the economy like this line, a common bit from his stump speech that he unfortunately recycled during a Sept. 15 rally in Jacksonville — the same day that Lehman Bros. declared bankruptcy and that investors faced their worst losses since Sept. 11, 2001.

Obama quickly seized on the statement to show McCain was out of touch, a narrative McCain constantly had to combat.

Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster in Washington and president of the Polling Co., said McCain at times succeeded in giving voters pause about Obama's fitness to lead. "I think, though, after the economic turmoil, McCain was seen by most voters as the riskier choice," she said.

Suspending his campaign. McCain didn't help himself when he suddenly announced he would skip the first debate on Sept. 26 to return to Washington and help broker a Wall Street bailout — especially when his involvement seemed to jeopardize the deal. Then he decided to declare victory and debate anyway.

At a time when Democrats were trying to portray him as erratic, he looked the part.

"Everyone was watching to see which candidate could better lead them in a time of economic crisis," said Ron Bonjean, a Republican political consultant who ran the GOP's message machine in the Senate. "At first it seemed like neither of them could. Then Sen. McCain made himself look indecisive by making too many decisions."

Scare tactics. Two weeks later, with the public still fretting over plunging retirement accounts, McCain turned his guns on Obama over his association with William Ayers, a 1960s-era radical who had been part of a violent fringe group.

Conway, whose clients include the St. Petersburg Times, said the decision was baffling, especially given that polls showed most Americans had little interest in the Obama-Ayers connection.

The Ayers attacks persisted for two weeks, including automated calls to swing-state voters at such a pace that three Republican U.S. senators asked McCain to stop.

In the 2000 primary, McCain decried similar calls aimed at him. His decision to try to scare voters with Ayers marked a sharp departure from his previous style, Conway said.

"In form, it means you have capitulated on your values," she said. "Fundamentally and functionally, it belies your own brand as someone who is above that."

He gained traction in recent weeks by campaigning on behalf of Joe the Plumber and hitting Obama for wanting to "spread the wealth," Conway said, but McCain suffered from a campaign that wrongly believed "if I could just call you a liberal, if I could just brand you by the company you keep, then something will break through."

• • •

Many of McCain's allies don't blame him for losing. They blame an unpopular president, a tiresome war in Iraq, a sour economy and the feeling that, after eight years of Republican control of the White House, just changing the name on the mailbox wasn't enough.

In January, McCain will return to the Senate for the last two years of his term, unlikely to try for the presidency again. As Tuesday's loser, he no longer will be the leader of his party. That role will go to someone with more of a future, or less of a past.

But with Democrats just a vote or two from a filibuster-proof majority, McCain will have more opportunity than ever, if he wants, to resurrect the maverick. To reach across the aisle, and make something happen.

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

In a year of change, McCain's transformation didn't work 11/05/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 5, 2008 9:10pm]

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