The good news for John McCain’s presidential campaign is opposing campaign strategists do not think that this week’s expected Senate vote on a comprehensive immigration-reform bill will kill the Arizona senator’s chances at the White House.
The bad news is these rival advisers believe McCain’s chances are already dead.
“Even if you don’t accept the idea that McCain is doomed, and you don’t believe the reports that he’ll be out in September, by the time you get to the point where you want to put up negative ads — which won’t be until November, December — is McCain really still going to be your competition?” said an adviser to one rival. “If these polls are accurate, and he’s slipping to fourth or fifth, you don’t really get much out of hitting McCain.”
Reports of McCain’s political death may be greatly exaggerated. The candidate’s only fifth-place finish was one poll in Iowa by Mason-Dixon. In the RealClearPolitics averages, McCain is third nationally at 15 percent, third in Iowa at 16.6 percent, tied for second in New Hampshire with 17.7 percent, and second in South Carolina at 17.5 percent. While he’s clearly lost some ground, he’s by no means dead in the water.
The McCain campaign is taking their lumps, and accepted the criticism and poll slump as part of the price for the stand their candidate has chosen.
“The immigration issue shows that yet again Sen. McCain places doing what’s right above doing what’s political,” said Patrick Hynes, a political strategist with McCain’s PAC, Straight Talk America. “It makes you wonder what any of these candidates would say if they were to make it to the general election. Would they continue to embrace their newfound enforcement-only positions? Or would they change their positions yet again to win support from the more moderate general election electorate?”
Perhaps most surprisingly, McCain’s rivals may be eager to get the immigration issue out of the headlines.
“I don’t know how much shelf-life this issue has for Republicans,” the rival strategist says. “This was Karl Rove’s brilliant idea to permanently cement the Hispanic vote to the Republican base. Well, so far, all we’ve seen it do is aggravate Hispanics and divide our base. The longer we’re talking about this issue, the deeper we’re digging this hole. And where the hell is McCain? He threw our party into this briar patch. He makes the deal with Kennedy, creating this mess, and then he’s out on the campaign trail raising money.”
McCain may not see many barbs from other candidates, as talk radio, bloggers, and conservative critics will take the lead in lashing him if the immigration deal passes. Rudy Giuliani, as the frontrunner in most polls, will have little motive to go negative on someone who trails him.
Giuliani’s campaign said Monday that so far, the candidate had laid out his criticisms of the bill, but not about any particular supporter.
Fred Thompson has criticized the deal without going after his former colleagues and friends like McCain.
Mitt Romney has largely tried to ignore attacks and criticism from the McCain campaign, perhaps not eager to invite another back-and-forth that he has flip-flopped on the issue.
It cannot help McCain that on Monday’s Rush Limbaugh radio show, the host noted three recent news items relevant to his livelihood — Trent Lott’s lament that talk radio is “running the country,” and “needs to be dealt with,” a recent report by a liberal group declaring talk radio is overwhelmingly conservative, and reports that Democratic senators want to reintroduce the Orwellian “Fairness Doctrine” — before introducing a fake ad for “The Coalition of Weak-Kneed Republicans.”
The fake ad featured a pitch from a Trent Lott impersonator to ban talk radio. The faux-Lott declared, “Without talk radio, you can listen to a Spanish-language station, and it’s a great time to brush up on your language skills.” After that statement, listeners heard a sound of a radio dial turning through static, and then accented voices shouting “Viva McCain! Viva McCain!”
Still, arguments like that one make some Republican message gurus, even those opposed to the bill, a bit nervous about the general election.
“Symbolism of this bill may be more important than substance,” says the rival strategist. He laments that the debate on the Republican side is turning into who can most vehemently denounce illegal immigrants, and to Hispanic ears, it may sound hostile to all immigrants, regardless of their legal status. “Sometimes it’s not the words that people hear, but the theme music in the background.”