07/11/2007 01:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Beginning of the End for McCain

I am about to go out on a thin limb on this one: John McCain's presidential campaign will not make it to Iowa. At some point between Halloween and Thanksgiving -- and after months of sinking poll numbers, fundraising that is heading in the wrong direction (the third quarter report is going to be a mess), and staff shakeups that smell of panic -- it will occur to the senior Senator from Arizona that Republican primary voters do not want him to be their nominee in 2008. The announcement will come around Christmas, though his stubbornness might lead him into Iowa anyway or out of the Senate completely, doubling down with an "all in" candidacy unencumbered by his Senate duties. After he accepts this verdict, and it will be difficult given his ego and all he has put into this race over the past seven years, he will do the honorable thing and withdraw from the nomination contest. Doing so early will allow him to return to the Senate - jaded and humiliated, but still able to be a real leader. Some of the best senators ever became so after accepting the fact that they would never be president.

McCain's undoing is a shame. Base Republicans have long-despised him for his willingness to work in a bipartisan way coupled with his penchant for telling uncomfortable truths to the faithful. His flip-flop on the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, Rev. Pat Robertson, and people of their ilk was seen for what it was and undermined his support among secular conservatives. "The Base" wants ideological purity, not functional governance. Despite McCain's rock solid conservative record, he could not give the base what it wanted in this regard. Add to this the age discrimination that is working against McCain, and his candidacy was doomed from the start.

He thought he could overcome this, but the fact is that he can't. While he is too conservative for my tastes, he is far more substantial than those to whom he is now getting left in the dust. The notion that Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and Fred Thompson can seem more presidential than McCain to Republican voters strikes me as insane. All of them have shown far less consistency in their conservatism and, more to the point, seem less craven in their ambition.

I'm particularly blown away by Thompson who, along with his people, has done a great job in orchestrating a campaign to get him into the presidential sweepstakes. Not one credible person was talking about him running for president a year ago, but here he is surging in Republican polling. He's part fiction, part Hollywood, and part desperate answer to the prayers of those that don't like McCain, Romney, or Giuliani. Playing authority figures on television and on film don't translate into being president. His Senate service was largely undistinguished and as we get to know more about his lobbying work -- it was recently reported that he lobbied on behalf of an abortion-rights group, a no-no in GOP politics -- the shine will likely fade from his candidacy.

But it's not over for McCain. He can still be a significant player in his post (non) presidential Senate career. Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy became the "liberal lion" after he conceded that he would never be president and buckled down to do the dirty work of being a Senator. Very few major pieces of domestic policy have been crafted without his input. He showed how to lead from the minority during the crafting of No Child Left Behind. That he is a major player in the Senate is borne out by the extent to which the Republicans use him as their fundraising bogeyman. Republicans don't use Kennedy in this way because they view him as inconsequential; they do it because the respect and fear him. McCain can have the same future if he would just come to grips with the reality that lies before him: he won't ever become president. His leadership on campaign finance reform is well known and much work needs to be done on that front. He has credibility on this issue and can leave a legacy that will span the generations if he continues to lead the country away from these massively expensive campaigns that corrupt the entire political process.

Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author Republicans and the Black Vote . He blogs at: