Sen. John McCain is trying to fight his way out of his campaign funk. But what better measure of the ever-shifting dynamics of the GOP presidential campaign than this: McCain, the once-presumed shoo-in, launched an unprovoked attack on Mitt Romney yesterday, and the Romney campaign brushed it off as "sad," "unfortunate," and "borne of desperation."
This is a chance to see McCain, R-Ariz., at his best -- shooting from the hip, unfurling classic zingers -- or his worst -- blowing his top, shrill, flailing. Notice that the inaugural (and there will be more) "Mitt vs. Fact" attack focused on abortion: The McCain camp is convinced (rightly) that their candidate benefits whenever the campaign focuses on abortion, and Romney speaks to the National Right to Life Convention tomorrow. McCain is going after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., at the same time, vowing to fight her special projects in the defense bill.
But McCain is hardly attacking from a position of strength -- which is why the Romney and Clinton camps can pretend not to care. The new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll has Romney, R-Mass., tied with McCain nationally, in third place. McCain is targeting Romney, who is also surging in key state polls (so maybe somebody needed to rough him up). But he's not touching the national front-runner, Rudolph Giuliani, or the man who could pose the greatest threat to all of their candidacies, Fred Thompson.
The context is all-important here: Would McCain need to be on the attack if his fund-raising was humming along, and his advisers weren't afraid of him fading? "Another sign of McCain's extraordinary descent so far in this race is that he has been reduced to frontally attacking Romney in June!" National Review's Rich Lowry writes.
Attacks lose their bite when they look desperate. Huffington Post's Tom Edsall sees it as "a last-ditch bid to revive a candidate whose poll numbers and financial resources are dwindling." He reminds readers that McCain can trace his downfall in 2000 to his decision to attack Gov. George W. Bush: "McCain lost the high ground in South Carolina. Then he lost the primary."
ABC's Jake Tapper finds the substance of McCain's attack slightly odd, since the video clip circulated by the McCain camp highlights a day where Romney "was certainly acting like an anti-abortion governor." Yet Romney rarely looks good when his shifting abortion positions come into focus, and another pro-life Romney critic, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., will also be at the Right to Life Convention in Kansas City.
The GOPers will have a chance to settle their differences in person Aug. 5 in Iowa, at ABC News' Republican presidential debate. Giuliani and Romney announced yesterday that they're in, and surely McCain can't be the only first-tier candidate to stay away and still say he's serious about competing in Iowa. . . .