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For McCain, campaign brought elation, regrets

 
Published March 8, 2000|Updated Sept. 26, 2005

Watching his popularity wane almost as fast as it had blossomed a little more than a month earlier, Sen. John McCain recently uttered the words that would be a perfect valedictory for his short-lived drive for the Republican presidential nomination.

"I will remember this campaign for the rest of my life," the 63-year-old Arizona senator said wistfully.

McCain has not officially conceded defeat _ not even after his dismal showing in the 13 Republican primaries and caucuses Tuesday. After getting the returns Tuesday night, McCain declared: "We won a few and lost a few today. And over the next few days we will take some time to enjoy our victories and take stock of our losses."

McCain aides indicated he might drop out as early as Thursday.

Yet it is clear that he is already facing up to his failure to overtake the party's anointed candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. And McCain's lifelong memories of the past few weeks will, at best, be bittersweet.

He can revel in the recollection of the heady days after his New Hampshire victory Feb. 1, when well-wishers swarmed to him like bees to a flower. During that period, his campaign had a unique freshness and his image as a war hero was welcome among voters of all political persuasions whose patriotism had been frayed by the unseemly behavior of President Clinton.

"You must remember that McCain's campaign was an uphill fight from the beginning," said Charlie Cook, a Washington, D.C., political analyst who publishes a highly respected newsletter on politics, "The Cook Report." "Having the Republican establishment so monolithically behind Bush, I think it's incredible that McCain got as far as he did."

At the same time, McCain will surely feel a twinge of regret in the years to come for some of the ways he mistakenly played his big opportunity. "He had to take risks," Cook observed, "and maybe he took one too many risks."

In retrospect, McCain's biggest risk _ and his biggest failure _ was his decision to persistently attack televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, saying these "voices of intolerance" should not be allowed to influence the policies of the Republican Party.

The purpose of this attack was to win favor with moderate Republicans, many of them in the key states of California and New York, who resent the intrusion of the religious right in their party.

It backfired, according to McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, because many Republicans assumed he was attacking all conservative Christians, not just Robertson and Falwell.

"He was not attacking the religious right," Davis said. "What he meant to convey was that our candidate cannot win in the general election if Pat Robertson takes the Republican Party in the direction he wants to take it. . . . We obviously have to do a better job of making that distinction."

Many political professionals thought that McCain's attack on Robertson was a good move initially but that he made a mistake by repeating it again and again until it consumed his campaign message of reform.

"I just think he overdid it," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant based in Los Angeles. "If it had been a one-time speech, he would have been okay. But he got bogged down in it and lost his optimistic focus."

In the midst of the controversy, McCain, in a burst of overzealous rhetoric, mistakenly went too far, branding Robertson and Falwell as "evil."

This did not sit well with many Christian conservatives, including former GOP contender Gary Bauer, who had endorsed McCain. To placate Bauer, McCain was forced to apologize.

Instead of energizing the moderates, McCain's attack on Robertson succeeded in bringing more Christian conservatives to the polls to vote for Bush in Virginia on Feb. 29. And that loss sapped McCain's momentum heading into Tuesday's make-or-break balloting.

Said Robertson: "He energized the religious base in a way that George Bush couldn't possibly have."

Still, many observers applauded McCain for what Carrick referred to as his "gutsy calls" throughout the primary season.

Chief among them was his decision to bypass the Iowa caucuses and concentrate instead on the New Hampshire primary, where he won his first primary election victory. This way, McCain avoided a bruising loss in Iowa, where his underfunded campaign would have struggled to match Bush's organization.

McCain also took a well-calculated risk by giving the news media unprecedented access to his campaign aboard the touring bus he called the Straight Talk Express. His openness won him favorable news coverage and established a refreshing contrast to Bush, who kept his distance from journalists and often stumbled when he was not speaking from a script.

Likewise, McCain's call for campaign finance reform served to set him apart from the rest of the field. While polls show a majority of voters would like to see the campaign finance system changed, it has very little support among Republican politicians.

In an effort to help Bush, Sam Wyly, a wealthy Dallas investor, inadvertently reinforced McCain's crusade against the campaign finance system by spending $2.5-million of his own money to produce and air anti-McCain ads. McCain repeatedly referred to it as "dirty money" from rich Texans intent on buying the election.

From the very beginning of his campaign, McCain pledged that he would not be disappointed if he lost. And even now, he remains true to his word.

In front of his supporters late Tuesday night, McCain asserted: "We will never give up this mission, my friends."

He said the Republican Party "needs to recover its purpose to be as big as the country we serve."

"That is the purpose of our campaign and as I said, I have no intention of ever surrendering it."