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The Perils of Being a Frontrunner

6 minute read
Karen Tumulty

As a rallying cry. “Common sense conservatism” doesn’t have quite the ring of “Straight Talk Express.” But the new slogan on the website of John McCain’s presidential exploratory committee–a slogan he manages to repeat at least three times in every speech he gives these days–tells you all you need to know about how different this presidential campaign will be from his last one. McCain ’08 will be a bigger, more conventional operation–a tank, not a slingshot. The prevailing wisdom about McCain used to be that his bipartisan appeal would make him a sure bet in a presidential race–if only he could get past the Republican primary. But as more and more of the party establishment climb aboard a campaign that McCain has not yet even formally launched, it’s starting to look as if the opposite may be true. By trying to become the perfect candidate for the primaries, McCain could be creating difficulties for himself in a general election.

His hard-line position on Iraq is a perfect case in point. McCain has continued to press for more troops there, and spent last week dismissing the Iraq Study Group recommendation to bring them home as nothing short of a recipe for defeat. That’s the kind of strong, consistent hawkishness that G.O.P. primary voters look for. “Besides,” says McCain strategist Mark Salter, “it’s what he believes.” The problem is that exit polls in last month’s election said only 17% of voters overall share that view, which could leave the other 83% wondering whether McCain’s famous independent streak, so appealing on most issues, would be such a good thing to have in a Commander in Chief who has the power to take the country to war. Already there are signs that his image is taking a hit. In the CBS/New York Times poll, McCain’s favorability rating slid 6 points, to 28%, between January and September.

McCain insists that he has always been more conservative than many of his fans believe him to be. But the most important perception people have about McCain is not about ideology; it’s about integrity. After staking his reputation on the moral high ground by speaking truth to power on issues ranging from deficits to torture, McCain is uniquely vulnerable to anything that hints of hypocrisy–even on questions that ordinary politicians would get a pass on. To have a shot at winning a presidential election these days, for instance, it is nearly a requirement that candidates opt out of the federal finance system, forgoing its matching funds because it’s too difficult to mount a credible campaign within the law’s spending caps. But that move, however pragmatic, would look bad coming from an author of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform law.

Also, it’s harder for McCain than most to explain away inconsistencies. How, for example, could a deficit hawk vote to make President Bush’s tax credits permanent after opposing their passage in the first place as fiscally irresponsible? Or why, after declaring Jerry Falwell to be an agent of intolerance during the brutal 2000 primary campaign, did McCain deliver the commencement speech last May at Falwell’s Liberty University in Virginia?

Such overtures might make inroads in a skeptical Republican base, but these shifts make some of his longtime allies worry. “A profile in courage can become a profile in unrestrained ambition,” says former Reagan White House chief of staff Ken Duberstein, who was one of the few G.O.P. establishment figures to support McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. “He has to remember who his friends are and not spend his integrity on one-night stands with those who will never fully trust him.”

Critics pounced last week when McCain let it be known that he has lined up a top G.O.P. operative to run his campaign–Terry Nelson, who was national political director for President Bush’s 2004 campaign. “Terry’s a great get,” says Salter. “He’s a good, savvy, very disciplined, smart guy with a lot of experience.” Nelson is yet another recruit from the once antagonistic Bush operation, and more evidence that the party establishment is falling into place behind McCain. But Nelson is known for hardball tactics that don’t exactly square with the Arizona Senator’s white-knight image.

Most recently, Nelson oversaw the Republican National Committee’s independent expenditure operation, which produced the most notorious ad of the 2006 campaign. In it, a bare-shouldered white actress claimed that she had met the black Senate candidate Harold Ford at a Playboy party. The ad ended with the blond cooing, “Harold, call me.” The resulting protest by black leaders and union groups was enough to force Wal-Mart to sever its ties with Nelson, who had been a consultant for the company’s campaign to improve its image. Ford lost the election.

McCain strategists say they will all be taking their lead from the candidate, not the other way around. “Any campaign has to be a reflection of who the candidate is,” Nelson says. In 2000, McCain ran his insurgent operation out of a dilapidated headquarters just outside D.C. that had previously been occupied by homeless people. Now, as the front runner, he faces a different set of expectations. Nearly from Day One, he will have to have full-fledged operations up and running in 15 or 20 states. Last time around he could skip Iowa to focus on staging an upset in New Hampshire, but this time McCain will have to compete–and avoid losing his balance–on every battleground. Says an aide: “We will go wherever one vote is available.”

While the Republican Party has a history of anointing its candidates early, this rarely happens without a fight. “It’s easy to throw the bombs,” says G.O.P. pollster Tony Fabrizio. “It’s tough to be the front runner every day.” For McCain, the biggest potential threats at the moment appear to be Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who is getting good buzz on the right but is largely unknown even to Republicans, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who comes out ahead of McCain in many polls but has yet to begin building much of a campaign operation.

McCain’s forces say they are preparing for all challengers. But what will it cost him? That’s a question that McCain himself has struggled with. There was a time just a few years back when he would tell people he didn’t think he wanted to run for President again. Not because he was getting too old. And not because he didn’t think he could win. McCain thought it just couldn’t possibly be as much fun as it was the first time around. He would say wistfully, “You can’t bottle lightning.” But while he may be in a better position to win now, he’ll still need some of that old electrical charge to do it.

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