The Note: McCain hits bottom


Scenario No. 1: It is over for Sen. John McCain. Down in the polls, battered by Iraq and immigration, flat broke -- pack it in, senator, and leave with your dignity.

Scenario No. 2: This is Sen. John McCain's moment. Down but not out, standing up for principle, poised for a grand comeback -- just the set of circumstances McCain needs to recapture the magic of 2000.

Keeping in mind that nobody's really eliminated in July -- except maybe the Nationals -- do not lose sight of this spin-proof fact: Something has gone wildly, horribly off-track in McCain land. Whether it was misjudging the impact of the immigration debate, misreading the fund-raising pull of the other candidates, or overstating McCain's own sway with donors and the GOP base, it is now clear that the once-presumed front-runner does not have the financial wherewithal to compete with the big boys. Per ABC's John Berman, "he is now in a corner, forced to make major staff cuts and organizational restructurings just to stay in the race."

Everyone from Ronald Reagan to John Kerry had moments like this early in the process, and it's not over for McCain, R-Ariz. But he has to avoid looking like an aging rocker paying off his child-support bills with one last sad bus tour. What he has left is himself: Forget McCain 2.0, and go back to the beta version -- the unvarnished, shoot-from-the-hip tough guy who dazzled New Hampshire eight years ago. "The campaign that John McCain planned is over right now," ABC's George Stephanopoulos said on "Good Morning America" today. "He's going back to his roots."

McCain himself is in Iraq this week, but even if he were in Iowa it would be hard to find a quick way out of this tailspin. The campaign wants to redouble its efforts in the early-voting states, but he lost his Iowa director yesterday and let go half of his 16-member staff in the Hawkeye State, per The New York Times' Carl Hulse and Adam Nagourney. "The problems fueled speculation that Mr. McCain would pull out of the race," they write. McCain is "now looking to raise $50 million this year -- half of what he once expected -- and was retooling the campaign to save as much money as possible for television advertising and travel."

McCain's core problem isn't money -- it's the message, and (perhaps) the man himself. "Lackluster financial results ($11.2 million for the second quarter) are as much symptom as cause of the malaise that is shadowing -- and threatens to prematurely end -- the Arizona Republican's presidential campaign," write Politico's David Paul Kuhn and Jeanne Cummings. "A once front-running candidacy is clinging to life, and at bottom the problems are about McCain's complicated relationship with the Republican Party's activist base."

As for the other political bombshell of the day, President Bush did a huge favor for a friend, but he did little to help the Republicans who want to succeed him as president, notwithstanding the warm embrace with which most of the GOP candidates greeted the news. (Just to be clear, Mr. President: It was inappropriate to comment on this pending judicial matter right up until the moment that you brought it to a crashing close so your friend could stay out of prison?)

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