For four months John McCain had a clear field while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were at each other's throats. Given the opportunity, the Arizona Senator failed to define the debate in favorable terms, spending much of the valuable primary months defending himself on charges that his campaign staff was top heavy with lobbyists.
Conversely, McCain has so far eluded the anti-Republican tidal wave that threatens to sweep away the party's candidates at every level, from county councils to the U.S. Senate. Amid the early wreckage -- GOP partisan identification in the tank, three defeats in rock-solid GOP House districts, and the National Republican Senatorial and Congressional Committees scratching for cash -- McCain stands competitive with Obama in national polls, running just 2.5 points behind.
The McCain campaign to date lends itself to contradictory assessments. The odds makers are leaning decisively in Obama's favor but McCain is not out of the running.
Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, has posted a PowerPoint study asserting that McCain currently hold slight leads in Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri and Nevada, and that Ohio is "a dead heat" and that Pennsylvania could go Republican. "This is a very good position for our campaign to be in," Davis contends
In fact, the survey data is not as favorable as Davis claims - Obama leads in all five of the most recent Pennsylvania polls by an average of 5.8 points, and he leads in Wisconsin by 2 points. Polling in the 19 states identified by RealClearPolitics as battlegrounds shows Obama in a better position than McCain, ahead in such Bush '04 states as Colorado and Iowa, and running very close in Virginia, New Mexico and Nevada.
In addition, the data on RealClearPolitics dispute another of Davis' claims --- that McCain has stronger favorable/unfavorable ratings than Obama. Instead, the recent average for McCain is 47.3 favorable to 40.8 unfavorable, or a +6.5; for Obama, it's 50.3 to 38.5, or +11.8 .
In not-for-attribution interviews, a number of Republicans were neither optimistic about his chances nor positive in their assessment of his campaign so far.
"I think we've got a world of problems," said one Republican strategist with extensive experience in presidential campaigns. He said this came home to him with a thud when he watched Obama and McCain give speeches last Tuesday, with the Democrat speaking before "20,000 screaming fans, while John McCain looked every bit of his 72 years" in a speech televised from New Orleans. This Republican cited the liberal blogger Atrios' description of McCain's speech with a green backdrop that made McCain "look like the cottage cheese in a lime Jell-O salad."
For McCain to stand a chance of winning, the operative contended, the campaign, the Republican National Committee, or an independent group will have to finance sustained negative ads developing a broad assault on Obama's credibility as a national leader at a time of terrorist threat. McCain, however, has gone out of his way to aggressively discourage such activity, the operative pointed out, which, he argued, may kill McCain's chances.
Another strategist with similar presidential experience said "McCain has not claimed the maverick ground that should be his. He has not seized the mantle of 'change' and reform that he could own by going to Washington and saying, 'you know me. You know I've been a reformer all my life. Now, here's how I am going to change Washington if you elect me president.' And he has not taken economic turf. He has not explained how he is going to grow, not Washington, as the Democrats plan, but this economy to meet the challenges of global competition."
Earlier this year, Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, wrote:
McCain is an America nationalist and progressive reformer in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, but the real consistent line throughout his career is a belief in his own righteousness. This can lead him to great prescience, as on the surge; foolhardy lack of proportion, as on his crusade for campaign-finance reform; and party-splitting, self-destructive stubbornness, as on immigration reform. If Republicans pick him, he won't be the safe, known quantity they usually look for in a next-in-line nominee, but a go-it-alone politician, unpredictable except for the courage and irascibility he'll bring to whatever he does.
Asked what he thinks of the McCain campaign so far, Lowry replied:
I'd say middling. But he's always going to have an enthusiasm, money, and charisma gap. The question is whether he can make up what might well be a solid Obama lead throughout the summer in the fall when people really focus on Obama... Probably the most important development in this period was McCain's embrace of the theme of reform, which I hope won't be jettisoned amid the critical reviews of the delivery and presentation of his New Orleans speech.
Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution argues that "McCain continues to embrace Bush policies on the most important issues, relying on a reputation for independence and moderation that could be lost in the heat of battle with Obama and the Democrats.... At the end of this long interlude, the only rationale for his election that has emerged is that Obama cannot be trusted to lead the country at a time of great danger because he is too inexperienced, naïve, liberal, elitist, and out of touch with American values. 'Elect me because the other guy is worse.' Not much of an argument in the face of gale-force winds blowing against the Republican Party."
Along similar lines, Norman Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, questioned whether McCain and his aides have "spent enough time and effort developing themes for why he should be president, not just why Obama should not-- especially themes that address the deep-seated anxiety voters feel that goes beyond current economic conditions."
Arch-conservative Bay Buchanan suggested that it may not matter what McCain does. Writing in Human Events on June 4, she declared:
In reality there is only one candidate. Barack Obama. In November he will win or he will lose. John McCain is relevant only in so far as he is not Barack Obama. The Senator from Arizona is incapable of energizing his party, brings no new people to the polls, and has a personality that is best kept under wraps.