McCain Agonistes

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The old line on McCain (i.e., 4-6 weeks ago) was that he was uncomfortable in the role of frontrunner and establishment candidate but was doing whatever it took to win the nomination. Well, he doesn’t have to worry about being the frontrunner anymore — or, for that matter, the choice of the establishment. What the Arizona senator’s weak first quarter fund-raising report shows is that, despite all his efforts, the GOP establishment simply hasn’t gotten over his past apostasy and isn’t ready, as a collective, to annoint him their man. Which means that for the first time in many presidential cycles, the Republicans don’t have a leading contender. It’s a free-for-all, with polls showing as much as 25% of GOP voters preferring two guys who aren’t even in the race — Newt Gingrich and Fred Thompson — over Giuliani, Romney, McCain and the rest of the already-announced candidates. No wonder Tom Tancredo thinks he can ride anti-immigration fervor to the nomination.

Joe noted earlier today what a shame it is to see McCain engaged in “flagrant, Bushian baloney-slicing.” I agree. Having boxed himself in by telling Bill Bennett that there were neighborhoods in Baghdad that the two of them could walk through, he then had to GO to Baghdad and try to prove the unprovable, compounding the embarrassment.

Back in 2000, McCain’s candor set the standard for his entire campaign apparatus. Following their candidate’s lead, his staffers were in the habit of admitting all kinds of failures and weaknesses. Not this time around. When I was working with Karen on her recent cover story on the state of the GOP, I interviewed members of Mccain’s senior campaign staff, as well as the Senator himself. I asked about rumors that they were having trouble raising money and that their first quarter number would be disappointing. “Nah,” assured one senior staff member, a long-time McCain veteran. “We’ll be fine. We’re happy with where we are.”

He was lying, of course. I asked McCain the same question about fundraising. At first, he too tried to b.s. me. “I think we’re doing good,” he said. Then, to his credit, he allowed that money wasn’t coming as easily as they’d hoped. “It’s hard. There’s a whole lot of people vying for [contributions],” he admitted. “My folks tell me there’s a certain donor fatigue out there amongst Republicans because they invested a lot in the last election and they didn’t get much in return.”

There is fatigue out there, but it may not be donor fatique. It may be that GOP donors don’t quite know what they’re buying when they invest in McCain — the establishment guy or the maverick — and so they’re biding their time, or investing elsewhere.