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Will McCain Be Able?

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Note: This piece was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle

As members of the GOP gathered for their first presidential debate this past Thursday, at what can only be described as the Mecca of Republican presidential politics, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, one member of the party-of-the-Gipper proved he still has his work cut out for him. That is, if he wishes to re-establish himself as the odds-on favorite to win the party nomination.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a faithful Reagan Republican throughout the '80s, who repositioned himself as a moderate media darling for his 2000 presidential run, has since lost much of his allure. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them has been an awkward embrace of President Bush and equally awkward stroll -- with 100 of his closest friends in the infantry -- through a Baghdad bazaar. In the words of Hollywood legend Ricky Ricardo, McCain arrived at Simi Valley with "some splainin' to do."

The problem is that McCain is attempting to win the hearts of suspicious conservatives while fortifying his fading appeal among more moderate Republicans and independent voters. Whether he accomplished either of these goals is open to debate, but I would argue he didn't, and largely because of mistakes he made before this colloquy took place.

In recent months, it has become clear that McCain and his coterie of advisers made a series of miscalculations in 2001 and 2004. According to former Democratic Senate Leader Tom Daschle, after his bruising primary defeat at the hands of then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, McCain was the first Republican to approach the Democrats about switching his party affiliation. Of course, eventually it was Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont who crossed the aisle, becoming an independent and deciding to caucus with the Democrats. McCain stayed put in the GOP caucus.

Once again, in 2004, after spending the intervening years as the proverbial thorn in President Bush's side, McCain thought of bolting the GOP. This time he approached Sen. John Kerry to discuss becoming his vice presidential running mate (not the other way around, as previously reported, according to Kerry himself). Again, McCain changed his mind, and in exchange for whatever promises made by Karl Rove for Campaign '08, suddenly moved hard to the right. McCain heartily endorsed President Bush and other Republican office-seekers, and attacked Democrats for good measure.

For the onetime "maverick," these were fateful mistakes. Democrats, hungering for the ouster of President Bush, and increasingly falling in love with the GOP senator for his opposition to much of the president's agenda, would have readily supported a McCain presidential bid in 2004, if he had simply repeated his 1999 promise that he would not overturn Roe vs. Wade. After all, he had voted against President Bush's tax cuts, co-sponsored a strong Patient's Bill of Rights with Sen. Ted Kennedy and former Sen. John Edwards and had joined Kerry to propose vehicle-fuel standards, among a litany of other progressive positions.

For all these reasons and more, conservatives will never forgive McCain, even with his 83 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union and almost cultish support for a war gone very bad. And that's the problem. For it's the very voters that his support of the war and President Bush should appeal to who detest him most.

Meanwhile, these positions have alienated many others who once admired him. This is a fact the candidate still did not seem to grasp Thursday evening, when he emphatically restated his support for more war in Mesopotamia and scarcely differentiated himself from a president with a lower approval rating than scurvy.

The truth is that McCain's only hope for recapturing the widespread support he enjoyed in 2000 is to move toward more reality-based positions on the war in Iraq and the commander in chief. For that, he might want to go to the videotape and survey the wisdom of the '90s McCain, who called for benchmarks and troop pullouts in Somalia and Haiti, and famously said he didn't want to trade "American blood for Iraqi blood" during the Persian Gulf War. He might also want to read transcripts of the way he used to refer to The Decider, pre-2004.

Becoming "the old McCain" again will help him win back the trust of a media scorned, which recently has come to regard him like any other cynical politician.

Can McCain do this? Who knows. But what is clear is that he will not win over conservatives.

Sen. McCain once said that "presidential ambition is a disease that can only be cured by embalming fluid." He was mostly right, but he might find an additional cure to be losing.

Cliff Schecter is the author "The Real McCain," to be published by PoliPoint Press in September