John McCain's campaign has been declared dead by the MSM and conservative activists alike and many are speculating as to whether McCain will stay in the race through the primaries. However, it may be that pundits have failed to understand what motivates McCain, who despite his years in Washington, operates -- for better or worse -- unlike most Beltway veterans. We talked to Charles Black, long time Republican strategist and a friend of McCain's for decades. He is now an unpaid senior adviser to the McCain campaign.
People say they want a straight shooter, but is that the case given McCain's early problems?
Black demurs, saying it is "a little bit early to tell" and explains that by his calculations only 10% of voters pay attention to day-to-day politics. He says that a Democratic pollster with whom he talked privately agrees that "authenticity" remains the primary quality that voters seek and this greatly favors McCain. Black is convinced that when we get down to the final weeks before caucuses and primaries the "authenticity quotient" will rise for many people and McCain will be the beneficiary.
Does McCain really march to a different drummer?
Black says that yes, contending that McCain has "always been that way." He attributes it directly to McCain's "background and history" in the military and as a prisoner of war. He says bluntly that McCain "doesn't fear much of anything" and views himself as "here to do what is right, especially on the big issues like Iraq."
McCain is well known not to "suffer fools" -- how can he function in Washington?
"Most days John has a lot of patience," Black says. But Black then adds, "John is not very patient when someone is being a phony." He notes that McCain has exhibited patience to "get things done" through the legislative process.
What about McCain's personal relations and friendships?
Black explains that McCain's "best friends are people he was in Hanoi with. He stays in touch with them. It's an extreme version of a college fraternity." He also points to enduring friends and allies from his days in the House like Phil Gramm (who now serves as a campaign adviser). Black then explains that he considers McCain to be the "Great Reconciler" -- pointing to his efforts to re-establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam and his willingness to work with John Kerry who had been "bad mouthing the U.S. military" when McCain was imprisoned. Likewise, he says that McCain's efforts to reach out to Jerry Falwell are part of this same penchant for mending fences McCain has shown his whole life, not a political stunt as was portrayed by some in the media.
Does it bother McCain who has been pro-life his entire life that social conservatives have not embraced him in this race?
Black allows that it "disturbs him" that some pro-life and social conservative leaders "put emphasis on campaign finance reform," which they believe impaired their political efforts. According to Black, these leaders "can't forget" McCain's championing of campaign finance reform. He nevertheless believes that voters themselves will look at the issues and eventually recognize McCain's solid credentials on abortion and other social issues and conclude he has the "more consistent record" on social issues.
Does McCain feel that Fred Thompson, who co-sponsored McCain Feingold, is getting a "pass" while McCain takes the brunt of conservative activists' anger?
Black declines to offer criticism of Thompson but does point out that people will "want to know where people stand on this." He does note that the Mitt Romney camp persists in repeating the phrase "McCain-Feingold" and that he is certain "they won't neglect [to mention] it with Fred."
Would McCain be devastated if he lost a second presidential race?
Black says that McCain is "very, very resilient" and a loss would "bother him but not for long." He emphasizes that he has not discussed this possibility with McCain who remains "such an optimist."
How has McCain reacted to his campaign difficulties?
Black jokes that of course, all things being equal, he would like to "have had the $100M and gone home" but insists that McCain "advances the ball best" when he is engaged in personal campaigning, on the bus tours and doing town halls. Black says that he "might be more comfortable" as the underdog in the race.
I asked Black how McCain assesses the situation in Iraq and how he views the Administration's failure to communicate clearly to the American people what is at stake.
Black notes that while we were pursing a failed strategy McCain was indeed "frustrated" and went so often to Iraq in order to be able to assess the situation and argue for a course correction. Black recalls that although he "obviously tangled with Rumsfeld" McCain's persistence paid off and the strategy he argued for is now in place. He does agree that public support for the war is "critically important," which is why he continually speaks about the issue. Black says McCain remains "cautiously optimistic" about the President's ability to sustain congressional support in September but acknowledges that McCain is "pessimistic about the Mailiki government" and was "more pessimistic when he came back" from his recent trip.
I asked Black about McCain's work ethic and whether he has his heart in it for continuing the campaign.
Black says that McCain "believes in working all the time" and that "the more hours he puts in the better." Black says McCain is not the type to take "breaks in the middle of the day" although McCain, a sports fan, can be persuaded to watch sports for a break. Nevertheless, Black contends that McCain will "outwork others" and carries a work ethic he learned from his father. As for campaigning Black says "when he is on the [campaign] bus riding around and doing 4 or 5 town halls a day, it's the best time he has." He does admit that McCain is "not crazy about fundraising" but says simply that McCain "loves campaigning."
If Charles Black's take is correct we can expect McCain to continue his fight against a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq and his own campaign. To do anything different would simply not be like Charles Black's longtime friend.
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