Monday, January 7, 2008

The McCain comeback

Another improbable chapter in a remarkable life story
Jan. 6, 2008 12:00 AM

The presidential primary race is a long, long campaign that has yet to see its first official primary, the Iowa caucuses notwithstanding.

But, for John McCain, now the presumptive frontrunner among Republicans, the race must seem not merely long, but eternal. How many political lives has the Arizona senator expended since mid-2007?

The McCain campaign saga - of soaring last spring, crash-landing last summer and lofting once more toward the heavens in the depths of winter - is perhaps the most implausible and melodramatic story of the entire implausible, melodramatic contest.

Conservative columnist Rich Lowry called McCain's 2008 comeback "a saga worthy of Tolstoy."

Is that what it is? A political epic masterpiece? A look back at the events of last July tells us one of two stories. Either it tells us a story about the media's capacity for wildly overdramatizing the imminent demise of McCain's once-formidable presidential campaign. Or it tells us yet another emblematic tale of John McCain's ability to persevere under circumstances that might crush a lesser man. Unlike Napoleon, McCain appears to be besting General Winter.

Early in July 2007, the McCain campaign went broke. Over the course of a heady and, yes, headstrong spring '07 march toward the Republican nomination for president, the McCain campaign spent money like it had $100 million in the bank.

Indeed, McCain's campaign managers thought they would have $100 million by early summer. Instead, lagging GOP campaign contributions combined with their spendthrift ways left the McCain camp with just $2 million, a pittance by Clinton-Obama-Romney standards.

On July 2, the campaign laid off 50 workers. Then, on July 10, the deluge of top strategists commenced. Terry Nelson, McCain's day-to-day director, left. And, perhaps most devastating of all, chief strategist John Weaver, a confidante of the senator since 1999 who was considered McCain's answer to Karl Rove, walked out the door with Nelson.

The campaign bloodletting prompted much-respected political analyst, Charlie Cook, to tell The Republic's Dan Nowicki that "the physicians have left the room and now it's the executors of the will taking over. This isn't about strategizing or organizing or messaging, it's now about paying off the bills and sort of winding down."

Another noted analyst, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, said the Arizona senator's campaign "has sunk like a rock."

The Times of London predicted McCain could pull out of the race entirely "by early autumn." Indeed, so many media were issuing McCain campaign epitaphs that the Wall Street Journal editorial page felt compelled to observe that the event "is giving the media who once loved him a chance to bury his Presidential campaign."

Then, something changed. Actually one very big event, the war in Iraq, began to change for the better. McCain, the most consistent advocate for fighting terrorists in Iraq with sufficient troops to do the job, rose steadily in the polls just as prospects for peace in that troubled nation improved.

Which suggests the one aspect of the McCain saga that always stayed the same: the candidate's near-mythic capacity to stay the course through very bad times.

So, he lives. And, for the time at least, he thrives. On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, the headline writers no longer concoct funeral dirges. Instead, they read like this one: "McCain: The Republican Heir?"

We'll see. From what we hear, coronation celebrations beat funerals any day.

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