Was McCain Doomed to Lose?

Opinion divided on whether senator could overcome Bush and economic turmoil.

November 04, 2008, 7:36 PM

Nov. 5, 2008 — -- A collapsing economy, an unpopular president and an opponent who became a phenomenon turned John McCain's candidacy into a long shot and then a series of campaign blunders ended whatever chance he had of defeating Barack Obama, observers say.

Political strategists from both parties agree that the Arizona senator and his campaign never seemed to settle on a winning theme and failed to put adequate distance between McCain and President Bush.

McCain's selection of little-known Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, as his running mate initially energized his campaign, but then dragged it down as questions mounted about whether she was ready to be a heartbeat from the presidency.

But it was McCain's reaction to the economic chaos in the last two weeks of September that ultimately sealed his fate, the strategists said.

"It was the turning point," said Bob Shrum, the Democratic strategist who helped steer Sen. John Kerry's unsuccessful 2004 campaign against Bush.

The beginning of the end may have come Sept. 15, when McCain declared, "The fundamentals of our economy are strong."

With the financial crisis unfolding, Obama pounced, declaring that the remark showed McCain was out of touch. At the time, the polls were essentially tied, with Obama at 47 percent and McCain at 46 percent. McCain would never come so close again.

McCain tried to undo the damage, putting his campaign on hold to work on the Wall Street bailout in Washington, and trying -- unsuccessfully -- to postpone the first debate until the plan could be hammered out. But to the horror of Team McCain, the deal temporarily unraveled just as McCain arrived in Congress hoping to oversee its passage.

"His reaction to the financial crisis. … It looked chaotic and desperate," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

While there is little debate that McCain and his campaign made mistakes, there is disagreement about how much of a chance McCain really had.

"I think external events did sink him," Rothenberg said. "They could have run a perfect campaign, and given what happened, he probably still would have lost."

In his concession speech late Tuesday, McCain spoke generally of the "challenges" his campaign faced and said, "I don't know what more we could have done to win the election." He said, "I won't spend a moment of the future regretting what might have been."

It was a view shared by some former McCain campaign aides.

Dan Schnur, the communications director of McCain's 2000 presidential campaign who is now the director of the Institute for Politics at the University of Southern California, said too many forces were aligned against McCain.

"It would have been a difficult year for any Republican. You start out with an unpopular war in Iraq, add on a less popular recession and add onto that an even less popular president -- that's a lot of baggage to carry," Schnur said.

"He actually was making a pretty good race of it until late September. The economy just became too much to overcome. You can point to tactical mistakes the campaign made. But when Wall Street collapsed, it collapsed right on top of John McCain."

Tuesday's exit polls underscored just how much this shifting landscape hurt McCain.

More than six in 10 voters called the economy their No. 1 issue; Iraq was a distant second, a concern of just one in 10 voters.

"McCain needed to run a campaign that emphasized the importance of national security, in leading the war on terror," Rothenberg said. "Instead, the last month of the election was all about the economy."

But for all of the obstacles facing McCain including Obama's overwhelming financial advantage and the public's deep desire for change, there is a camp that refuses to hold McCain blameless for his defeat.

"I never subscribe to the political science theory that elections are predetermined," Shrum said. "McCain had a real chance."

Analysts in this camp fault McCain for seeming to switch themes and messages almost daily, running an ad one day that Obama supported the teaching of sex education to kindergartners and then attacking him the next day for having an association with 1960s radical William Ayers.

Obama, on the other hand, hammered the same message day after day, charging that a McCain presidency would represent a third Bush term.

Shrum said "a smarter campaign also would have separated McCain earlier from Bush" and "invited or tolerated a fight with the Republican far right, who don't like him anyway."

This could have been accomplished by naming a more moderate Republican or even Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut as his running mate, reinforcing McCain's maverick credentials..

"John McCain had one of the best brands in American politics. He threw it away in this campaign," Shrum said. "They kept trying to satisfy the Republican base. The truth is, where else did those voters have to go?"

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