John McCain is now close to clinching his party's nomination, a remarkable come back that would not have been possible without the help of fellow candidates Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson, who seemingly did everything they could to get him where he is today. Over the past six weeks, these candidates seemed intent on hurting Mitt Romney and boosting John McCain and they allowed the Arizona senator to coast through January mostly unscathed. Here are a few key dates in the effort by McCain's rivals to help their opponent and the accompanying storylines.
December 16th: Giuliani pulls out of New Hampshire: The first Rudy Giuliani's stunning Mid-December decision to concede New Hampshire; that move opened the door for McCain's come-back. While Giuliani was not gaining ground in the state, most polls had him tied with McCain at 20%, with Romney hovering above 30%. This mid-December poll, for example, had Romney at 32%, McCain at 18% and Giuliani at 15%.
Giuliani's pulling out caused his support to collapse, with McCain carrying most of it. Romney remained at the same level for weeks and weeks up to January 8th, showing no sign of weakening. Giuliani's collapse in Florida also helped McCain pull out those 5%, particularly in Miami-Dade where Giuliani thought he was particularly strong.
And this followed other very lucky breaks McCain got in the run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire. If Huckabee had not surged in late November and overtaken Mitt Romney in Iowa, McCain would not have been able to derail Romney's game plan of easily winning the caucuses and concentrating his attention on New Hampshire. Given Romney's healthy lead in New Hampshire until the final days of 2007 where McCain pulled into a tie, it is difficult to imagine Romney not riding the wave of an Iowa victory into New Hampshire. Though I grant that Huckabee's Iowa surge was not consciously planned by the candidate to help McCain, the Arizona Senator enjoyed a series of events that were outside of his control but that lined up perfectly for him to make his move.
January 10th: GOP candidates hold fire at debate: In most of the January debates, there was only one target, and that was Mitt Romney. And only the former Massachusetts Governor went after McCain, even when it became obvious that McCain was the candidate to beat. It all began at ABC's New Hampshire debate on January 5th, where the candidates ganged up on Romney. Then, on January 10th, after one more encounter which McCain left unscathed, I asked, "Do Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee want John McCain to be the GOP nominee?" I had not realized yet to what extent that would prove true.
January 27th: Huckabee rushes to McCain's rescue: In the run-up to South Carolina and to Florida, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani knew they were days away from elimination and that staying alive required taking swipes at John McCain. Yet, both of them dramatically refused to do so. Huckabee in fact spent more time praising the Arizona Senator than criticizing him. As Romney and McCain were engaged in some harsh rhetoric over Romney's alleged support of a withdrawal timetable, Huckabee rushed to McCain's rescue. In an indirect swipe at Romney, Huckabee declared, "I've never seen John McCain say something that is just blatantly untrue... We have a civil approach to presidential process. Neither of us has sought the office by cracking the kneecaps of the other."
As mysterious was Giuliani's decision to not capitalize on a rare major policy disagreement among the GOP candidates. McCain opposes the idea of a national catastrophic fund, which is a big issue in Florida and which Giuliani supports. But instead of hitting McCain for this position on the airwaves and in mailers, Giuliani only released a web video criticizing McCain's opposition to the fund. More stunning still,
Mike Huckabee has been transparently campaigning for a vice-presidential spot at this point. But what is more difficult to explain is why Huckabee decided to more or less give up his quest for the nomination and focus on the VP spot when he still had a chance of getting the presidential nod. At the January 10th debate for example, the Iowa caucuses were still a week old and Huckabee had all his chances in the South Carolina primary. Why did he decide to give McCain a free pass and continued doing so in the next three weeks?
Many observers doubted that John McCain would get clinch the nomination given the distrust he inspires among conservatives. But for that distrust to kick in and cost McCain victory, his rivals had to step up and commit to pointing out the deficiencies in McCain's record. Instead, Romney remained the only candidate attempting any sort of attack on John McCain and the Arizona Senator is close to becoming his party's nominee. After a year long campaign from which all his GOP rivals are emerging bruised and wimping, John McCain is arguably even more unscathed than he was on day one.