PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — “The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.”
The poet Robert Burns may have written that line more than two centuries ago, but it holds up fairly well nonetheless on the precipice of the New Hampshire primary as disciplined candidates with well-calibrated paths to the nomination go into full meltdown mode.
For John McCain, however, the awry has, bizarrely, transmogrified into the best-laid plan. If McCain wins in a blowout here tomorrow night — and my notoriously unreliable inner Magic 8 ball currently reads, All Signs Point to Yes — the Arizona Senator will have his many policy liabilities to thank for the turnaround.
After the Gang of 14, taking an Exacto blade to the First Amendment, breaking with the party on “enhanced interrogation techniques,” running out of money and, especially, the immigration reform fiasco, few Republican contenders saw much use in beating a politically dead senator. Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson went out of their way to praise McCain, likely suspecting kind words were more eulogy than endorsement. Others ignored him. And so McCain went under the radar, neither having to endure early scathing attacks nor sullying himself in the agonizingly protracted campaign — partly McCain’s doing, ironically enough — that tested the patience of virtually everyone in the state.
As the surge began to pay what will hopefully be sustainable dividends in Iraq and other candidates shot themselves in the foot, McCain returned bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Despite having been in the running for the Republican nomination years longer than most of his opponents, the media’s favorite maverick found himself the fresh face of the race, playing his time in the political wilderness off as a matter of not wanting to wrestle with pigs.
“I gotta tell you it feels a little like it did eight years ago,” McCain told well over 100 supporters at a post-debate rally on Saturday night, all packed into a room that had reached capacity two hours before he arrived. “Some call it Lazarus-like…”
This political resurrection indeed borders on the miraculous. Last week I attended five McCain events, sure at each I’d seen the wave crest, only to watch it grow larger the next day. It began with a surprisingly large midday crowd at a diner to greet McCain and liberal pariah/Democratic endorser Joe Lieberman. Two days later a small opera house just barely fit everyone who turned out. Fire marshals had to turn people away from a town hall meeting in Peterborough.
At the McCain debate watch party, a steady stream of political celebrities came out of the woodwork to endorse their risen colleague. Connecticut Representative Chris Shays said he was there to do “penance” for not supporting McCain — “the man I believe will be a great, great president” — in 2000. Maine Senator Olympia Snowe called McCain “as authentic as you can be.” Former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer regaled with folksy stories before warning the crowd the Republican primary field was full of “many good people, but only one great leader.”
Even ordinary supporters with no chance of meeting McCain filed into the main section of the restaurant, commandeering televisions from football fans. Boos erupted whenever Romney appeared on screen. The crowd continued to grow as the debate progressed, engulfing pool tables under framed stills from Rat Pack films and The Hustler. When McCain finally arrived, the roar was deafening.
Minnesota Fats never pulled off a hustle this smooth. McCain has many grassroots Republicans he was so estranged from not so long ago laying their chips on him again.
AT A PANERA BREAD in Portsmouth on Sunday morning I met an evangelical minister who had been nearly committed to Romney until the former Massachusetts governor’s debate performances and advertising began to feel too mean-spirited for his tastes. After a brief flirt with Huckabee — “he seems like a socially conservative Democrat to me” — he decided not only to vote for McCain, but has been making calls on his behalf.
“I never thought I’d be for McCain, but I think he’s the only conservative who’s gone through this race with dignity,” he said, shrugging.
Even after going through the rationalization process, this landscape shift can remain baffling. A little over a year ago I saw McCain speak in Keene, New Hampshire. When the senator explained he didn’t want to leave “millions of people in shadows, not part of our society but working,” the crowd sulked in stony silence. A few minutes later a member of the audience called illegal immigrants “parasites” and declared, “They should all be thrown out. No amnesty, no exception. I don’t care if they’ve been here 50 years.” McCain stood with a forced grin as applause rivaling his entrance echoed off the walls.
Last Thursday McCain told a crowd not an hour south of Keene he understood the American people didn’t trust the government to do the right thing on immigration. Considering how far out front he was on the issue, this distrust presumably extends to McCain. Yet instead of jeers, loud whoops and cheers followed this time. McCain beamed and nodded.
The guys driving the McCain=Amnesty van seem shocked at their target’s newfound Teflon coating. Other concerns over McCain, voiced by such stalwart and astute observers as Quin Hillyer (“As truly horrific as it would be for the liberal and unethical Mike Huckabee to win the Republican presidential nomination, many Republicans still believe it would be almost as difficult to stomach the nomination of John McCain”), are gaining surprisingly little traction under the new Ascendant McCain paradigm. There isn’t anyone giving him a hard time over McCain-Feingold for the First Amendment. His fellow candidates are happy to note his opposition to the Bush tax cuts, but voters appear disinclined to squawk about neo-ancient history.
Even the dissenters in his crowds are content to mostly needle him about the Iraq war — the topic that inspires his most eloquent, grassroots Republican-pleasing retorts.
Political predictions this year, as John Tabin notes, are a Choose Your Own Adventure novel at best, a fool’s errand at worst. McCain may not, as Mark Steyn posits, be able to “contain the nastiness.” If, however, Romney’s screeching implosion proceeds unabated and Giuliani’s one-note campaign continues to falter, however, devotees of “National Greatness” conservatism might very well flock to McCain to head Mike Huckabee — a man who believes childhood obesity is a matter of national security — off at the pass.
McCain couldn’t have planned it any better. Now if the mice could just get their act together.
American Spectator Contributing Editor Shawn Macomber is writing a book on the Global Class War.
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