Different routes, same GOP goal

Personality driving force in McCain's resurgence

Senator John McCain of Arizona greeted supporters yesterday as he arrived at a campaign rally in Chesterfield, Mo. McCain has surged to the front-runner's position following a win in the Florida primary. Senator John McCain of Arizona greeted supporters yesterday as he arrived at a campaign rally in Chesterfield, Mo. McCain has surged to the front-runner's position following a win in the Florida primary. (CHARLES DHARAPAK/Associated Press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / February 2, 2008

CHICAGO - In climbing back from oblivion to contention, John McCain has done well with an unusual array of constituencies - seniors, Catholics, abortion-rights activists, and veterans. But his campaign's most remarkable alliance may be between the voters who think he is wrong about immigration and those who think he is wrong on Iraq.

As McCain comes off wins in Florida, South Carolina, and New Hampshire, the Arizonan is now where he thought he had begun his campaign years ago: a front-runner poised to become the consensus choice of Republicans.

McCain, however, has gotten there less by winning voters over to his policy positions than by investing them in a national cult of personality that has made McCain's greatest political weakness - dissenting with his party on major issues - into a virtue.

"It's about a constellation of attributes more than issues," said Mark McKinnon, McCain's media consultant. "If you think someone has character, you're willing to suspend your disagreements."

McCain - an edgy, unpredictable, improvisational politician - stands astride a party that has historically resisted the shock of the new. In the eight years since he mounted a failed insurgency on the party's establishment, McCain has succeeded in reintroducing himself to Republicans as a familiar figure. Idiosyncrasies that once galled party regulars have become reassuring.

"With their president, the majority of the people really want to feel comfortable with the person - a person of integrity they can look up to," said Grant Woods, a former Arizona attorney general and McCain's first congressional chief of staff. "They're discovering that about McCain."

In Florida, McCain's first victory in a primary open only to Republicans, McCain beat Mitt Romney handily among voters who made a choice based on a candidate's leadership and personal qualities, and trailed among those who decide on specific issues. McCain won voters looking for a candidate with candor, experience, and electability - losing to Romney only among Floridians seeking someone who "shares my values."

McCain seems to relish the disagreement. A practitioner of legislative compromise in Washington, McCain is the most unyielding of campaigners on the trail, reveling in a politics of confrontation encapsulated in the slogan he adopted when touring in defense of the Bush administration's "surge" in Iraq: "No Surrender."

McCain has proudly told voters who disagree with him on key issues that "I'm not your candidate," declared that opponents of his war policy want to "wave the white flag of surrender," and suggested those who take a hard-line attitude toward immigration are acting contrary to "Judeo-Christian values."

"Every town hall meeting, McCain would deliberately find a foil in the audience and purposefully disagree with them in a way that showed his independence to the other three hundred people in the room - to show he wasn't a suck-up that would tell them what they want to hear," said Fergus Cullen, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

"That was a calculated effort on his part."

It was a different "straight talk" mien than McCain offered in his failed 2000 campaign. His rhetorical opponents then - Republican party bosses, lobbyists, and special interests who stood in the way of a reform agenda - were never in his town hall meetings as he took them to task, and his crusades came with little electoral risk.

Last year, as McCain defended his immigration plan to Republicans and the Iraq war to independents, truth-telling became a dour slog; he confronted real people who disagreed with him and not distant, abstract villains. By the fall of 2007, McCain was on the receiving end of boos, catcalls, angry questions, and conspiratorial accusations, and he catalogued them all.

"Remember that woman in Marshalltown?" he asked reporters over and over on the back of his bus, marveling over a diffident Iowan whom he remembered trembling as she took McCain's immigration stance to task. McCain invoked her as a curiosity, not an obstacle.

Those troubles contributed to his plummet in the polls and the disappearance of would-be fund-raisers the campaign had counted on to generate more than $150 million. Instead, McCain raised just over $40 million last year, and had to take out a $3 million bank loan in November just to keep going.

But in the end, exit polls from this year's early primaries suggest, many of those belligerents ended up supporting McCain. In states with GOP primaries open to independents and Democrats, McCain found some of his deepest support among voters who oppose the war he has claimed as his own. In South Carolina, McCain ran competitively among the 52 percent of voters who support the deportation of illegal immigrants - a position McCain has repeatedly portrayed as uncompassionate - losing among them to Mike Huckabee by only eight points.

"McCain wants to win their vote by winning their respect," senior adviser Mark Salter said of the candidates' eagerness to deliver unpopular opinions.

In Michigan, however, McCain's remarkable party trick - earning people's affection by telling them off - failed him. McCain said manufacturing jobs lost in the state "aren't coming back," and was attacked by Romney as being heartless and defeatist in the face of economic change. The exchange mired McCain in a nearly weeklong back-and-forth that served him poorly: Romney won the primary due in large part to voters who cared about the economy, overwhelmingly the most important issue in the state.

Aides acknowledged that the episode showed that straight talk had its limits - and that in a large state where candidates are forced to communicate with voters through broadcast sound bites and not direct encounters, McCain had trouble eliciting voters' respect.

"In a big state, a small state, a medium state - you just tell the truth. If it doesn't work, you just move on," McCain said following his Michigan loss.

Yet in Florida, when the debate turned again toward economic issues, McCain changed the subject. Parsing a vague, nine-month-old statement, McCain argued that last spring Mitt Romney had supported timetables for withdrawal.

Although news organizations described McCain's statement as a distortion of Romney's record, McCain continued to repeat it. After Romney said it was "wrong" and "dishonest" and demanded that McCain apologize, McCain said it was Romney who owed an apology to American soldiers.

For McCain, his penchant for defiance appeared to trump his commitment to telling the truth.

It was the embrace of party leaders in Florida rushing to validate McCain - Senator Mel Martinez and Governor Charlie Crist, who offered key late endorsements - that may have saved him.

"This year, he has been able to navigate the process without becoming the establishment candidate - until this week," said Cullen. "It's coming to the point where establishment Republicans see John McCain as someone they can work with."

Crist made the endorsement despite differing with McCain over the creation of a national catastrophic-insurance fund, an initiative Crist has identified as a priority for Florida.

"I just like the guy," Crist said, trying to explain what drew him to McCain. "I just do. I like him. It's a gut call and the right call."

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