A year ago, Senator John McCain was the odds-on favorite to win his Party’s nomination for president. He had the best and biggest campaign staff, a sterling resume, and foreign policy expertise at a critical time. Then he infuriated the Republican base by pushing comprehensive immigration reform and his campaign spent itself into the poor house, forcing huge layoffs. He’s been thought a long shot candidate since at least July.
Everybody has been complaining about the interminably long campaign season. However, for the Arizona senator it has a possible upside. It has given people time to forget how angry they were at him, and most of his rivals haven’t worn well.
McCain still has a steep climb to get to the nomination. He remains in second in the must-win state of New Hampshire and his standing in national polls has fallen behind flavor-of-the-month Mike Huckabee. But if he follows these five not-so-easy steps, he just might find his footing:
1. Ditch the generic biography ads. By now the only people who don’t know he was a POW and has been in the Senate for a long time are unregistered or uninterested. McCain should instead make the connection between his biography and the tasks that lie ahead. For starters, McCain should argue that only he can get to the bottom of controversies like National Intelligence Estimate confusion and figure out what our intelligence community is up to. By connecting his background to a specific issue that concerns not only Republicans but independents, he can use his biography to some useful purpose. Otherwise, voters may be grateful for his service but unclear why it matters.
2. Champion small government. The Republican base is sick of “compassionate conservatism” and would like to go back the stingy, not very cheery conservatism we used to appreciate and saw ridiculed by the liberal media. Mike Huckabee has spent enough and enacted enough nanny healthcare programs to fill a few attack ads. Mitt Romney’s embrace of individual health insurance mandates and the goal of universal coverage (as opposed to universal access) suggests a fondness for the power of government and a naivete about its ability to outperform free markets and individual choice. McCain can run on a platform of “over my dead body would I support this kind of nannyism.” Given Fred Thompson’s failure to fill the “unhyphenated conservative” niche, McCain is well positioned to make that pitch.
3. Camp out in New Hampshire. Spend every day including Christmas between now and January 8 in New Hampshire. Romney is tied down in Iowa as are Huckabee and Thompson. McCain will gain nothing by diverting time and money elsewhere. New Hampshire gave his campaign a boost in 2000 and his only chance in 2008 is a repeat of his upset victory there. At some point he will need to make a direct appeal, straight to the camera, to New Hampshire voters not to end his presidential hopes in the Granite state.
4. Be a credible and respected adult on the issues of faith and morality. McCain is well positioned to explain why personal integrity matters but religious doctrine should not determine public policy. Recently he has made efforts to reach out to religious value voters and explained his belief in the Judeo Christian foundations of the country but he has not excluded nonbelievers from his outreach. A quieter, less sales-driven approach on values and faith may come as a relief to voters.
5. Argue against a “check the box” approach to selecting the nominee. If the election comes down to a check list of how many positions he shares in common with the base, McCain likely will not win. However, he can elevate the debate and call for a wiser calculus in decision making: What are the greatest problems and who can best deal with them? If that is the test, voters may prioritize their issues and give him due consideration.
Even if he follows this advice, McCain’s limited resources make a successful run improbable. But stranger things have happened in this election cycle. His nomination would not be the oddest.