McCain Changes Tactics in White House Bid

Howard Fineman believes John McCain is going to try to be a little less maverick and a little more Republican in his second attempt at getting the nomination.

They want to build out their campaign with members of the Bush circle, and base McCain’s pitch on the notion that he is the only sensible, electable and competent commander who can take control of the war on terror. “Competence and electability,” that’s what we’re going to talk about,” said a key advisor. “If you support the president’s vision, John can carry it forward.”

So, essentially, he is running as a more competent George W. Bush, much as George H.W. Bush ran as a “kindler, gentler” Ronald Reagan.

Here in Memphis, McCainanites worked closely on straw poll strategy with Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, a Bush loyalist widely regarded as one of the sharpest strategic and organizational minds in the party. They are wooing him to come aboard officially, which would be a major coup for McCain. Word around the Peabody lobby is that another former GOP chairman, Richard Bond, is part of an unofficial circle of counselors, too.

This is quite shrewd. McCain has finally realized that the route to the Republican nomination goes through the Republican primary electorate. Getting people who are proven masters at marketing to the base is essential. Certainly, it doesn’t get much better than Barbour and Bond.

McCain’s recent move to embrace Bush at just the time when he seems weakest is strategic, too.

As McCain explained it, you get no credit for standing with a popular ally; the test of friendship is to be at his side when he’s down. So the call was meant as a personal pick-me-up. “I wanted to tell him that I was with him, and supported him, and that the polls weren’t a test of whether he was doing the right thing, which I think he is.”

James P. Pinkerton, meanwhile, thinks McCain’s poor showing in the Memphis straw poll over the weekend “proves he’s only the candidate of the mainstream media.”

McCain’s weak showing is a reminder that the illusion of a political juggernaut, promoted by reporters and Beltway ideologues, is not the same thing as a real juggernaut – the kind that rolls all the way to nomination and election. The proof is in the pudding: Of 1,427 ballots cast in Memphis, McCain won a measly 4.6 percent.

Yet the Mainstream Media (MSM) mostly buried this news. One reason is that the straw-voting took place on Saturday night, after Sunday’s newspapers had been mostly put to bed. But there’s another reason: MSM-ers like McCain. Sunday’s Washington Post, for example, offered this McCain-as-frontrunner headline: “McCain Tests New Road to Nomination/2000’s GOP Rebel Incorporates Support for Bush Into Quest for Change.” From a McCainiac point of view, the wording couldn’t get much better: He’s on the way to be being nominated, he’s independent, but oh, yes, he also likes the president.


One can say that it’s only a straw poll, two years before the real thing in the Iowa caucuses. But an important point can be made: The activists who showed up in Memphis – the kind of folks who festoon themselves with buttons touting candidates and causes – were a lot like the activists who will show up in Iowa and the other key states. That’s McCain’s big problem: The elites adore him, or at least respect him, but the activists, who actually pick the nominee, don’t seem to like him very much.

Many activists dislike McCain for the same reason that the MSM like him: The senior senator from Arizona has criticized such conservative icons as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Some will say that Falwell and Robertson deserve criticism, but many GOPers thought McCain was too eager to tell reporters what they wanted to hear.

While I agree that McCain has problems with the base, it’s silly to argue that the straw poll is indicative of that. It was in Frist’s home state and it’s a straw poll.

And, as Ruth Marcus points out in today’s WaPo, McCain is getting support from unlikely places, such as his old nemesis Trent Lott.

[I]t also reflects an unsentimental assessment that McCain is, as Lott puts it, “our best horse this time around.” Thus, some leaders such as Lott and, perhaps more important, some big-money men, are placing early bets on McCain. That trend may continue, but it remains unclear whether a skeptical base — still angry at McCain over his disputes with President Bush in 2000, chafing at his championing of campaign finance reform, or unconvinced of his social conservative credentials — will follow. “I must say I think they’re somewhat leery of him,” Lott says. “But we want to win the next election. Pragmatism is a powerful force in politics.”

As a result, the once-conventional political wisdom — that McCain would be a formidable general election candidate but can’t make it past the gantlet of Republican primary voters — is crumbling along with Bush’s approval ratings. And though McCain is working hard to help the party in 2006, the paradox is that a rout in November would do wonders for McCain 2008.

I remain a McCain skeptic, even though a lot of people I know in Republican political circles think he’s the GOP’s best shot at keeping the White House in 2008. The telling thing, though, is that McCain himself seems to understand that he needs to combat the perception among the nominating electorate that he’s a Republican in Name Only and is doing something about that while he still can.

Moreover, it’s worth noting that the presumptive frontrunners of both parties, Hillary Clinton and McCain, are both making some shrewd decisions that go against type. Clinton is clearly distancing herself, and has been almost since coming to the Senate, from the hard left of her party, especially on the issues of national security and border control. McCain, meanwhile, is moving toward the mainstream of his party and away from trying to win the approval of the press. He’s even got David Gergen concerned that he’s “a hard core conservative.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tim Vincent says:

    At the conclusion, it really says that the political center is moving right;
    McCain moves right to the base and Hillary moves right away from the crazies.

  2. anjin-san says:

    Which crazies Tim? The ones who wanted to put an Arab company in charge of our ports?

  3. Jonk says:

    No, crazies who wish to disband our military, *those* type of crazies. The political flat earthers.

  4. anjin-san says:

    OK Jonk, I will stand by while you show me where anyone who is even taken halfway seriously in Democratic politics is advocating “disbanding our military”.

    Meanwhile, I remind you that it is the President who advocated to port turnover. (even to the point of a first-ever veto)

  5. Bithead says:

    So, is that to be your excuse? That nobody takes the seriously?

    Here’s the newsflash for you; when you see Democrats standing up and loudly disowning Kucinich, call me.

    And I’ve got a second newsflash for you ; you get a tool for one deal going here; the port’s deal was not about port security it was about who ran the ports. Closing to read the port’s was not going to change ; port security state in the hands of the Ins the border patrol and the coast guard.

    Continuing to spread this nonsense about how we were handing port security over to the Arabs is disingenuous at least and in fact a flat out lie.

    At this point I would say that you could do better, but I have my doubts about your ability, there.

  6. Bithead says:

    As for McCain, I have my very serious doubts about him. McCain for his part, should have been removed forcibly from the Republican Party ten years ago. I’m not sure I want him anywhere near the White House, even for a dinner party, unless he’s a waiter. I, for one, have not forgotten the stunts he’s pulled and last twenty years.

    The question comes down to this:
    Do Republicans nominate McCain because he doesn’t tee off so many Democrats, Or do we nominate somebody that actually stands in the fire for Republican principles?

    McCain is a better choice than any democrat out there. But, not by much. The Republicans can do far better.

  7. anjin-san says:


    So where did I say “port security”? Please read more carefully before you go into frothing at the mouth mode.

    But while we are on the subject, I think that if someone “runs the ports” they would have a much better chance of successful smuggling or whatever plotting they might wish to do then if they did not “run the port”. Logical, no?

    I think its best we control our own ports. Most Americans agree. Bush is badly out of the mainstream.

    As for Kucinich, I said someone who is taken half-way seriously. And I don’t recall hearing even a marginal case like him saying we should “disband the military”. Can you show where he did say it?

  8. McCain says:

    Sure Bithead, Republicans could do better. They could nominate Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater. Unfortunately, these conservatives are in the unadmirable position of being dead.

    Among the living, however, John McCain is THE conservative candidate and he just happens to be more electable than anyone else. You will at least concede (won’t you?), that McCain is more conservative than that free-spending, socially liberal George Bush? At least we can make that a foundation, yes? And since our liberal hero George Bush was barely electable, we can agree that a more conservative candidate like McCain is probably a good bargain, yes?

  9. Tim Vincent says:

    After you people sort out all the questions of “ideological purity” the best chance of Republicans retaining the WH is McCain.
    BTW, I disagree with a LOT of McCain; but I disagree a whole hell of a lot more with Shrillary and the whole corrupt, America-hating entourage that would ride in with her.

    As far as the ports issue: Dishonest demagogues (Schumer, Shillary, etc.) abetted by the MSM and the total economic ignorance of the “people” killed a straight-forward deal.