If John McCain bounces from his victory in Florida this week to a nomination-clinching Super-Duper Tuesday in California and the 23 Dwarves, there are three main categories of humans he'll have to thank for the biggest worst-to-first primary performance since George McGovern's in 1972. They are: his pratfalling competitors, his gullible independent supporters and his always-willing enablers in the media.
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Just six months ago, the latter camp was busy generating McCain obituaries through its tears. "The really worst part of my job," MSNBC shouter Chris Matthews said last July 10, as McCain was in the process of firing half of his staff and restarting his campaign from scratch, "is to talk about what happens if he does continue to sink." Right-of-center opinion journalists were more gleeful. "The fact is that nationally, Mr. McCain faces a ceiling of about 20 percent support," Ryan Sager wrote in his final "McCain Death Watch" post last October on the Real Clear Politics blog. "He can go (and has gone) under it, but it would take an act of God for him to go much over it."
Assuming McCain didn't implode in the 2008 race, his main competition was always going to be the slick, managerial blue-state governor Mitt Romney, with his sunny corporate optimism; and the snarling, managerial blue-state mayor Rudy Giuliani, with his bomb-'em-all World War IV talk. For McCain to beat out his ideological soulmate Giuliani — who has called McCain his "idol" — the maverick senator needed an early lead, so as to look more electable by the time Rudy got around to his late-state strategy this week in Florida. But to build that early lead, an essentially broke McCain had to compete against the deep-pocketed early-state campaign of Romney. With Giuliani dominating in national polls for most of 2007, and Romney buying his way up the charts in New Hampshire and Iowa, McCain needed a bolt out of the blue to crack Romney's aura of inevitability. And, oh yeah — that thunderclap couldn't come from late entrant Fred Thompson, McCain's great pal and campaign-finance cohort, who was essentially lured into the race by the Arizona senator's seemingly imminent demise.
Cue God's main vessel in the GOP primaries, Mike Huckabee.
If you asked most political journalists last summer which second-tier Republican candidate was most poised for an improbable run at the upper crust, most would have pointed to antiwar libertarian Ron Paul, who was making substantial noise on the Internet (and who has raised far more money than McCain and outperformed Giuliani in nearly every early state). But it turns out that Paul's principled limited-government types, unhappy at having to choose between a Mormon recent convert to antiabortionism and, in Wonkette's memorable description of Giuliani, a "thrice-married opera-loving cross-dressing gay-roommate-having Manhattan dandy," paled in comparison to the restless Christian wing of the Reagan coalition's mythological "three-legged stool," comprised of defense hawks, tax cutters and social conservatives.
Huckabee went from lovable weight-loss pitchman to Bible-thumping Iowa prizewinner seemingly overnight, kneecapping Romney's confidence. Giuliani became a forgotten man, and Thompson never did seem to get real interested. Because of McCain's near-death experience back in the summer, no one wanted to kick the surge-supporting hero when he was down, so while the other candidates had at each other, he spent all his time concentrating on the two states he was always counting on — town-hall-tastic, independent-rich New Hampshire and the scene of the 2000 crime, South Carolina.
Here's the funny thing about independent voters: They still love John McCain, think he's a straight talker. No matter how many times he claims to run a positive-only campaign on the same day he releases an attack ad; no matter how many ways he violates the spirit of his own campaign-finance legislation (do yourself a favor and Google "The Reform Institute"); no matter how unconvincingly he stammers his way through wanting to make permanent the same tax cuts he eviscerated in 2001 and 2003; no matter how inaccurately he slimes Romney and others for insufficient support of "our troops"; no matter how many immigration bills bearing his name he now opposes; and no matter how many times he confesses to manipulative, ambition-driven lies in his own damned books, independents still come out for their maverick — 42 percent of them in open-primary South Carolina, and 39 percent in New Hampshire.
With more than half of the Super-Duper Tuesday states allowing unaffiliated and independent voters to weigh in (though not California's Republican primary, which is closed to independents), McCain's momentum heading into the national primary could make him the first GOP nominee widely loathed by grass-roots conservatives since George Bush I back in 1992.
For many of us non-Republicans, that can seem like a perfectly good deal. After all, the enemy of Rush Limbaugh and Tom DeLay surely has a better chance of being my friend, right? Don't be so sure.
It's impossible to assess McCain accurately without first dealing with the fact that he's probably been the beneficiary of more flattering media attention than any national Republican in the past four decades. In the 1970s, he took R&R — the rest and recuperation allowed by the military for wartime soldiers — with legendary New York Times scribe R.W. "Johnny" Apple Jr. before he got shot down over Vietnam. He once asked the liberal Michael Lewis — author of more than 20,000 worshipful words on McCain — to move in with him. Rolling Stone contributor Paul Alexander wrote a McCain biography with the hagiographic title Man of the People, a strange moniker for a millionaire third-generation member of Navy royalty whose wife and mother are heiresses and who has spent most of his life within 30 miles of Capitol Hill. Newspaper endorsements — many featuring errors of fact — are gaining momentum: The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Daily News, The Sacramento Bee, the San Jose Mercury News, and on and on.
As a direct result of his long media honeymoon, much of what we think we know about McCain is wrong. Exit-poll numbers out of the early states showed that McCain was doing especially well among primary voters who were antiwar. The numbers say something disturbing about our capacity to believe that independent antiwar voters are seriously considering a man who championed pre-emptive war three years before it ever occurred to George W. Bush, who personally told me that the U.S. share of defense spending — more than one-half of the world's total — was much too small, and who has demonstrated repeatedly these past weeks that he doesn't understand why any American would question the deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq 100 years from now. After more than seven years of increasingly unpopular war, Americans look poised to nominate the most explicitly pro-interventionist presidential candidate since Teddy Roosevelt. Don't say you weren't warned.
Matt Welch is editor-in chief of Reason magazine and author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick (Palgrave MacMillan, 2007).