John McCain clearly is back in the news. Pundits tout his “surge” and three national polls place him in second place in the Republican race, albeit well behind Rudy Giuliani. His campaign touts his standing in head to head matchups against Hillary Clinton in key swing states. He faces substantial and potentially crippling financial problems and lags behind four rivals in Iowa, but McCain’s prospects have clearly improved.
What explains the McCain revival?
First, if time does not heal all wounds, it certainly lessens them. Having time pass since the bloody battle over immigration reform has worked to McCain’s benefit. Moreover, he has acknowledged reality and repeatedly remarks that he has “heard the American people” and now understands that border security must come first.
Second, as Iran looms large both on the international stage and as a campaign issue, his foreign policy expertise once again becomes a strong selling point. If General Petraeus and the unintentional assist from MoveOn.org captured the September headlines on the Iraq surge, the looming menace of a nuclear Iran seems to have captured even Democrats’ attention. Aided by Mitt Romney’s “ask the lawyers” stumble, McCain has taken every opportunity to remind voters he is literally battle tested and has been involved in national security issues for 20 years.
Third, frugality is back in fashion and McCain is second to none in the cheapskate department. Voters this week rejected a stem cell proposition in New Jersey and a tax increase for healthcare in Oregon. Clearly, voters think less government, rather than more, is the way to go. McCain’s “Woodstock” debate moment converted into ads neatly captured his twin appeal: military hero and budget hawk.
Fourth, social conservatives and those looking to avoid a GOP civil war may look upon McCain as the best alternative. He is no recent convert to the pro-life cause and while he does not support a gay marriage constitutional amendment, he may give social conservative voters a solid alternative to the federalism of Thompson and the “flexible” views of Romney.
Fifth, “authenticity” is in. Voters looking for an alternative to Giuliani may conclude that Romney is after all too polished and too conveniently and too recently in sync with the conservative base on a list of issues.
Now it would be a mistake to underestimate the challenges McCain faces. Most immediately, he is broke and may either have to round up a large loan or accept public financing, neither of which will help his electability argument. As his prospects improve, his opponents may cite his campaign’s financial failings as evidence that he talks a strong game but cannot manage his own (and by implication the taxpayers’) money.
His standing in Iowa is dismal — single digits in fifth place — which may kill off his comeback. And while New Hampshire offers a better prospect, the independents (who now lean more Democratic than Republican) whom he covets so dearly may well flock into the Democratic primary, depriving him of support from those who appreciate his views on issues that do not line up with the GOP base, such as torture.
Finally, his adage that he would “rather win a war than win an election” may be telling. Voters may appreciate his role in correcting course in Iraq and yet still not embrace him in the role of president. He lacks the executive credentials of Romney and Giuliani and can point to little evidence that he has improved Washington during his tenure. (It could have been worse, his supporters will retort.)
So in the end McCain may not make it, but he is back in the fight to the delight of his supporters and the frustration of his foes. Classic McCain.