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Analysts Reflect on McCain’s Unexpected Path to GOP Nomination

March 5, 2008 at 6:15 PM EST
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Despite campaign turmoil and unlikely odds last fall, John McCain finished his remarkable comeback Tuesday, winning the last few delegates needed to clinch the GOP nomination. Columnists David Brooks and Ruth Marcus discuss McCain's dramatic campaign path.
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JIM LEHRER: And how did McCain do it? Well, Gwen Ifill has that story.

GWEN IFILL: Just last summer, John McCain was out of money and seemingly out of luck. But last night, he pulled off the most stunning turnaround of the presidential campaign, outlasting a half-dozen strong competitors to effectively claim the Republican Party nomination.

For some thoughts on how he did it and what happens next, we turn to New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus.

Welcome to you both.

So, David, we’ve heard all the metaphors, Lazarus rising from the dead, phoenix rising from the ashes. Which is it? How did he pull it off?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Fatalism, first of all. I recall riding with him in a van at the depths of all this. And he was like the pilot who was just taking off from the plane, whatever is going to happen is going to happen.

And he sort of — for all the people who think you need to strategize and do this and that, he had no strategy, because he had no strategists left. And so he just said, “I’m going to do whatever I need to do.” And he just was himself. And I think that did liberate him.

The second thing I’d say, he had accumulated over the years a number of advisers who were so loyal to him they would work for him for nothing. And that was absolutely crucial, because you actually do need like three or four staff.

He didn’t have many, but he had a few, and they were willing to go deep into their pockets to pay for their own families while they were working for him.

Third, he got lucky. Mike Huckabee beat Mitt Romney; that was crucial.

And, fourth and finally, he did these town meetings. And you’d go up to New Hampshire when he was in the depths of his despair, the town meetings were still good events. They were still getting 300 people. They still liked him. And he just kept doing town meeting after town meeting after town meeting. So it all worked out for him.

GWEN IFILL: You look at the four things David just listed, Ruth, and prioritize them and then add whatever else you think.

RUTH MARCUS, Washington Post: I would prioritize two. The first is every mother who’s ever told her children, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” should thank John McCain, because he just kept going.

I was with him in New Hampshire, also, the weekend after his campaign allegedly imploded, if we remember that word. And he had a good turnout. And he was doing it. And he just kept plugging away.

The second thing is he is the luckiest politician on the planet right now. He just benefited from everything. Every card fell right for him, and not just Mike Huckabee who, I think, has done him a favor all along, but Rudy Giuliani making some bad strategic decisions, Fred Thompson never being the candidate that he was supposed to be.

And so, in the end, plugging, plugging, plugging, tortoise and hare, tortoise got nominated this time.

McCain played himself and won

David Brooks
New York Times
The Republican primary voter was a lot more flexible and a lot less orthodox than the Republican establishment.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that's an interesting point. Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, they were all supposed to be stronger candidates at different points in this than John McCain, and yet John McCain became the victorious tortoise.

How much of it, do you think, had to do with the fact that they just misplayed their hand and he was always the better candidate?

DAVID BROOKS: I'll tell you what the secret to me was. They all tried to be orthodox Republicans. Rudy Giuliani came from one place. He decided to be Ronald Reagan II or Fred -- I'm now forgetting his name.

GWEN IFILL: Fred Thompson?

DAVID BROOKS: No, Allen, George Allen from Virginia, they all tried to be George Allen, an orthodox Republican senator. Mitt Romney tried to be George Allen. They all tried to be that.

McCain, he said, OK, I'm not orthodox, but I'm going to be who I am, while making some trends toward orthodox Republicanism.

But the essence was -- and this, I think, was not predictable -- the Republican primary voter was a lot more flexible and a lot less orthodox than the Republican establishment.

So they had certain lines you had to be in, the Republican establishment did. But when you actually looked at the primary voters, they were willing to be a lot more flexible about what constituted conservatism. And they were willing to support him, even if Rush said no, even if the Club for Growth said no. They were more open.

McCain's conservative critics

Ruth Marcus
The Washington Post
He's going to have to really balance between the desire and the attractiveness, really, of being himself and the pull of running, you know, this huge Broadway performance that is a general election campaign.

GWEN IFILL: Have those critics all been silenced now?

RUTH MARCUS: They have been quieted down, but I think that David raises an important point that's a real challenge for Senator McCain going forward, which is, when he was running as the candidate of the establishment, when he was sounding less like himself and more like George Allen, or whoever that guy was...

DAVID BROOKS: Fred Allen, but that's going back a few decades.

RUTH MARCUS: ... he did not do well. He did well when he was running this kind of summer stock performance, you know, a bunch of guys trooping around, a band of brothers, let's put on a play.

Now he's back to being of necessity, by definition, the candidate of the Republican establishment. And so he's going to have to really balance between the desire and the attractiveness, really, of being himself and the pull of running, you know, this huge Broadway performance that is a general election campaign.

DAVID BROOKS: This is actually one of the things that interests me about the campaign. He swears he's going to continue to do the town meetings all the way through the general, he's going to continue to sit on the bus kibitzing with the reporters all the way through the general.

That's unusual for a general when the scale gets so big. I don't know if he can really do that.

RUTH MARCUS: And it's a high-wire act.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

McCain's association with Bush

David Brooks
New York Times
Despite all that's happened, despite the tremendous campaign that Clinton and Obama are having, McCain is either ahead slightly of Clinton in the head-to-head polls or behind slightly to Obama.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the president's endorsement, that jaunty endorsement in the Rose Garden this afternoon. Does it help or does it potentially hurt to have an unpopular president endorse you?

DAVID BROOKS: I think people associate Bush with McCain to some extent. He is a Republican. He's been running in the Republican primary. George Bush is a Republican. So people are aware of the relationship between the two.

But despite all that's happened, despite the tremendous campaign that Clinton and Obama are having, McCain is either ahead slightly of Clinton in the head-to-head polls or behind slightly to Obama.

So despite all the war and everything else, he's still right there, and despite the ties to an unpopular president. So I can't imagine it will hurt any more than it already has. And he's already still right there in a head-to-head match-up.

GWEN IFILL: There's that famous photograph of the two of them hugging. Do we expect to see a lot of that?

RUTH MARCUS: Yes, I think we can expect to see a lot of that, not necessarily in McCain commercials.

What happened today at the White House needed to happen. And John McCain isn't going to say anything that's going to aggravate the Republican base, the folks who still aren't that happy with him, to further alienate them, nor is he -- I think he mentioned several times today that president is an awfully busy man, so he'd like him to campaign with him to the extent that his schedule permits.

And somehow I imagine his schedule is going to permit a lot of fundraising; it's going to permit a lot of events in red states. And I don't think we're going to see the president campaigning, as Ronald Reagan actually did for the first President Bush, in a lot of the swing states, not a president this unpopular.

The benefit of independent appeal

Ruth Marcus
The Washington Post
Iraq is not a positive for him, but it's not the huge negative it once looked like.

GWEN IFILL: How about those independents that McCain is supposed to be so good at getting? If he wins independents and attracts them to the Republican Party, does he alienate those same conservatives who haven't made up their minds completely about him?

DAVID BROOKS: I really don't think so. I think when we get down to the general election, it will be a pretty traditional center-right versus center-left election.

And on issues of taxes, foreign policy, regulation, globalization, trade, it will be break down pretty much center-right, center-left. So I think the conservatives will really have no problem.

The question will be building an authentic center there that independents can draw to, because independents have been fleeing the Republican Party over the last few years.

And the good sign for John McCain, if you look at some of the polling, McCain draws more Democrats to his side than Obama draws Republicans to his side. So there is a core of support there, but it will be a challenge, because his party is so far behind the Democratic Party overall.

GWEN IFILL: You probably talked to voters like I did who said during the New Hampshire primary, "I'll either vote for Obama or McCain," which didn't seem like it made sense on the issues, but it seems like...

RUTH MARCUS: But it makes sense in terms of that center. I do think -- and far be it for me to tell David where conservatives are going to go -- but if you look at last night's exit polls, you still do see, for example in Texas, voters who identified themselves as very conservative, half of them voted for Mike Huckabee.

And I don't think that means that John McCain has a huge problem. I think in a way, bizarrely enough, the fact that they were able to vote for Mike Huckabee sort of drained some of the energy. It was kind of an escape steam valve thing for them.

You know, so they had their say and now they can fall in line, like Republicans are an orderly party. But I do think you can't ignore that fact.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the disorderly party for a moment, which would be the Democrats. McCain has got a little breathing room now to decide what he does next against whoever is the nominee. Who does he want to be the nominee? And what does he do?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he wants, I think, Hillary Clinton to be the nominee. I think most Republicans still would rather run against her than him.

He, because he likes Hillary Clinton a lot more than Barack Obama personally, but also because, when you look at a lot of those independent voters, especially in states like the Upper Midwest, McCain can really see winning those states. Against Barack Obama, that suddenly becomes much tougher.

So I rarely meet a Republican who wouldn't rather run against Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama.

RUTH MARCUS: And she would serve to energize that base that we were just talking about in a way that McCain himself can't.

I also think that John McCain doesn't want to run against any particular person anytime soon. This is just -- the luck continues for him. I don't know how long it's going to last, but the longer the two of them are busy firing at each other and softening each other up, and the McCain campaign can just sort of, you know, bookmark the video clips of each of them saying nasty things about the other or their campaign folks saying nasty things about the other, and just splice it into the campaign commercial in the fall.

GWEN IFILL: And he just goes off and raises money while they're doing it.

RUTH MARCUS: And he just goes off and raises money.

GWEN IFILL: One big issue, though, he has been and continues to be a big supporter of the war in Iraq. How much does that advantage or disadvantage him against an unnamed Democrat?

DAVID BROOKS: It's overall a disadvantage. The American people think the decision to go to war was a mistake.

Nonetheless, if you look at polls just out today, there's a significant increase in the number of people who think the surge is working. That number has doubled in the past couple of months.

If you ask people, as Pew Research did, will the U.S. effort in Iraq succeed? Yes, 53 percent; no, 39 percent.

So the Iraq public opinion is finally beginning to shift, which doesn't mean it will be a plus for McCain, but less of a negative.

RUTH MARCUS: And he used one of my favorite words last night, which was re-litigate. He said it doesn't make sense to re-litigate the decision to go to war. And, quite honestly, it doesn't.

I mean, you could argue about what it says about judgment. But the fact of the matter is the important question going forward is: What will you do? If you want to take troops out, there's legitimate questions about what chaos or other effects will ensue in Iraq.

And to the extent that he can focus attention on what we do next and to the extent that things in Iraq stay at least stable and less terrible than they've been previously, that's not the argument you'd want to be making. Iraq is not a positive for him, but it's not the huge negative it once looked like.

GWEN IFILL: Re-litigate, I like when the Harvard Law School student comes out in you, Ruth.

Ruth Marcus, David Brooks, thank you both very much.