“Yes, sir. I understand that you may not like Senator McCain,” a frustrated staffer says into her telephone. “But we need to show party unity tonight. I really hope you’ll come — you don’t need to bring a check with you.”
So went the hours leading up to the June 21 Lincoln Day Dinner in Orange County, Florida, according to Florida Republican sources. More than 50 seats had to be filled at the last minute, and organizers were frantically calling around to fill them. Some interpreted this as a sign that local Republicans were less than thrilled with the choice of keynote speaker, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a candidate for the presidency. That may be unfair — the event did draw 700 people — but this is not an isolated incident. McCain has just had one of those months.
Over the weekend, the former frontrunner received all of seven votes in Pennsylvania’s Republican State Committee straw poll at Hershey Lodge. He came in behind Rudy Giuliani (87 votes), Fred Thompson (40), Mitt Romney (12), and Newt Gingrich (10). One reason for the grumbling was doubtless the fact that McCain had just cancelled his Thursday speech at the three-day meeting (the immigration bill had been killed on the floor that morning), and cancelled it so late that Thursday’s newspapers still announced he would be speaking. Conservative activists had been expecting to protest McCain’s arrival but instead had to content themselves with their normal pastime of heckling Sen. Arlen Specter.
With the close of the second fundraising quarter in the presidential cycle, Sen. John McCain is running out of money and therefore options. His fundraisers in big-money states like California report anemic totals per event. Talk of another “reorganization” circulated among Republicans in Washington over the weekend in anticipation of the numbers his campaign released this afternoon: They raised $11.2 million in the second quarter, but spent $14.4 million, leaving just $2 million in cash on hand. Terry Nelson, McCain’s campaign manager, told a conference call of reporters that the campaign had been built on the assumption — now proven wrong — that it could raise $100 million in this calendar year. Moreover, he said, the immigration debate was killing his fundraising totals, pushing the campaign to seek federal matching funds for the primary.
The hammer struck hard this morning with massive job cuts “across the board” and pay cuts for senior staff. Several of the junior workers did not see it coming. The campaign will now focus narrowly on early states where McCain is not doing so well — including Nevada, where a recent poll puts him at just eight percent. Conveniently, the candidate is visiting Iraq this week for the sixth time, to celebrate Fourth of July with the troops. It may come in handy for McCain staffers that the campaign of former Sen. Fred Thompson has already gone down the list and offered many of them jobs.
McCain has vigorously denied rumors that he is abandoning his lifelong dream and dropping out of the race for president, but the last week arguably represents the worst moment of his political life since the Keating Five investigation. His immigration bill has now died a second tortuous death on the Senate floor. McCain, true to his principles, went down with that ship, which cost him several supporters and county campaign chairmen in New Hampshire and South Carolina. His landmark campaign-finance bill was all but overturned by the Supreme Court last week. And Quinnipiac’s most recent poll was the first to ask Republicans how they would vote if McCain were not in the race. All of this has happened in the space of just a few hot and humid days in Washington.
McCain’s futures contract has plummeted in just one week from around $12 to below $6 at InTrade.com. The contract, which can be redeemed for $100 if McCain gets the nomination (and is worthless if he does not), once sold for nearly $60. By this measure, he trails Giuliani and Thompson, who trade above $33, and Romney at $20. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is now close behind McCain at $3.
Even as they distrust Gov. Romney for his recent changes of heart and disagree with Giuliani for his stand on social issues, conservatives continue to dislike McCain — which is ironic, because of the so-called “Rudy McRomney” trio, he has the most conservative record. A porkbuster with a mostly pro-life voting record and a compelling personal story of service to his country, McCain would have much to offer the Right as a presidential nominee. Even in the days when George W. Bush was riding high with conservatives, one could always match McCain’s transgressions with those of the President himself: Bush, who, like McCain, supports the immigration bill, signed not only McCain-Feingold but also a prescription-drug entitlement that McCain voted against. And the senator proved himself a good sport and a loyal party man in 2004, when he stumped aggressively for the president who had vanquished him four years earlier.
On the other hand, every bill with McCain’s name on it seems designed to antagonize the very conservative voters he needs now to win the presidential nomination. There’s McCain-Feingold (to regulate or ban certain political speech), McCain-Lieberman (to cap carbon emissions), McCain-Kennedy (immigration reform), and the other McCain-Lieberman (to close the so-called “gun-show loophole”). When one considers the trinity of top conservative issues — babies, guns, and taxes — McCain is hitting only one for three, and even that one is marred by his two recent votes to make taxpayers fund embryo-killing research.
McCain likes to call himself a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, and he is indeed among the last of a long-dead breed of good-government Progressive Era Republicans. He voted against the Bush tax cuts and until recently maintained that the so-called “death tax” is a necessary social engineering tool of the government, to prevent excessive accumulation of wealth. Having never embraced Reaganomics, McCain seems far more concerned with keeping the government in the black than he is with shaping a business- and investor-friendly tax policy that promotes economic growth.
As a popular war hero and a fairly conservative senator who still got some love from the mainstream media, John McCain appeared to have the primary campaign won before it even started, and he looked like a general-election candidate who could not lose. With the image of inevitability now completely erased, and a wide gap between himself and his party’s base, McCain sinks to depths from which it would be hard to expect a frontrunner to recover.