WASHINGTON — John McCain, the darling of the independents and the news media in the 2000 presidential campaign, is struggling in the 2008 race.
The senator from Arizona continues to place a solid second in national polls behind former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for the GOP nomination. And now he is lowering expectations in the all-important "money primary." When the totals for fundraising in the first quarter of 2007 – which ends this Saturday – are announced, Senator McCain is likely not to wow anybody, he hints.
"We started late, our money-raising, and we're going to pay a price for it, because we got off to a late start," McCain told reporters on Sunday, according to the Associated Press.
Technically, McCain is not even a formally declared candidate yet, but in effect, he has been running for president ever since he lost the Republican nomination to George W. Bush in 2000. Now, despite his status as the GOP's "establishment" candidate and the backing of key Bush fundraisers and campaign advisers, he is once again the underdog.
Can he recover? Yes, say political analysts, who see Mr. Giuliani's support as soft and Republican voters not as engaged in their party's nomination battle as the Democrats are in theirs.
McCain remains a top-tier candidate, and in the earliest nominating states, Iowa and New Hampshire, he is neck and neck with Giuliani. In Iowa, they are tied at 29 percent each among Republican voters. The key there is that the addition of former Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee as a potential candidate takes support away from Giuliani, as McCain rises.
Mr. Thompson received 12 percent of Republican voters in the latest poll by the independent American Research Group – the first time ARG has included Thompson in a poll there. In the same Iowa poll, McCain gained six points from the previous month, while Giuliani lost two points. In New Hampshire, McCain leads Giuliani 23 percent to 19 percent in the latest ARG poll.
As a candidate, McCain faces several strikes against him, including his age, his past health struggles, his image among conservatives as "unreliable" on their issues, and the fact that he ran before, which makes it hard to seem fresh. But his biggest obstacle appears to be the Iraq war, and his decision to hew closely to the president's approach, analysts say.
"The Republicans are in the trenches with their heads down in the dirt. It's just one bad thing after another," says Dick Bennett, president of ARG. "What they really want is a candidate who will say, 'It's OK to stand up and brush the dirt off. I'll get you out of this.' McCain has tremendous viability, because he can do that. But so far, he has been reluctant."
Giuliani's liberal positions on social issues also make him suspect as a front-runner. For now, he is winning votes in the polls because of his image of leadership from 9/11, but conservative dissatisfaction with the GOP field means a fair amount of churn may still lie ahead – including the possible addition of Thompson and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as candidates.
The irony is that while the possible addition of still more candidates reflects dissatisfaction with McCain as the establishment favorite, it could also split the opposition to him and allow him to rise again to front-runner status. But McCain needs to finish the process of redefining himself, analysts say.
In 2000, as the "maverick" who appealed widely to independents and conservative Democrats in New Hampshire and other early primary states, this time around he has lost his independent and Democratic support. His transition from maverick to establishment had the effect of blurring his image.
"In redefining himself, he undefined John McCain," says independent pollster John Zogby.
But beneath that reality, there are some positive signs for McCain. He is getting the mainstream endorsements in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, another key early primary contest. "And that's what makes him more credible this time than what any of the polls would show," says Mr. Zogby.