PHOENIX -- In the end, Republican John McCain could not pilot his campaign through some of the stormiest skies ever faced by a presidential candidate.
A global financial crisis and President Bush's unpopularity created a bad environment for any Republican candidate, campaign aides and analysts say, but McCain also created some of his own problems in his loss to Democrat Barack Obama.
Among them: McCain's late-September decision to "suspend" his campaign in light of the economic crisis did not seem to impress voters. Republicans also are debating the wisdom of McCain's other key decision, the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Beyond that, critics say, McCain struggled to find a compelling message, lurching from slogan to slogan.
"He consistently ran the wrong message," says pollster Frank Luntz, citing McCain's periodic advocacy of a new global-warming policy as an example. "People aren't afraid of the ice caps melting when their 401(k)s are melting."
A campaign that McCain, a former Navy pilot, had hoped to wage on national security instead turned on financial issues — and Democrats made sure voters heard his 2007 comment that "the issue of economics is something that I've really never understood as well as I should."
Besides the economy, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis cited another financial hurdle: Obama's campaign budget, which reached $640 million as of Oct. 15. That allowed Obama to stretch the electoral map and advertise in traditional Republican strongholds — including Virginia and Indiana, where Obama prevailed on Election Day.
McCain didn't have that luxury, and his efforts to invade Democratic territory fell flat. The campaign pulled out of Michigan in early October.
It devoted millions of dollars to Pennsylvania, seeing an opportunity because of Hillary Rodham Clinton's decisive victory there in the Democratic primary, Davis says. Yet polls showed McCain way behind, and he lost the state to Obama.
"It was a daunting task to start with," McCain senior aide Mark Salter says of the campaign's uphill climb. "And it was more daunting every day."
In McCain's concession speech Tuesday, he thanked his staff for valiantly waging "what at times seemed to be the most challenged campaign in modern time."
McCain said he didn't know what more he could have done to win, adding, "I'll leave that to others to determine."
Race breaks down in chapters
In many ways, the story of the McCain campaign revolves around two dates: Aug. 29, the day he unveiled Palin as his running mate, and Sept. 24, when he suspended his campaign.
The first woman on a Republican presidential ticket, Palin delivered a well-received acceptance speech.
Her "hockey mom" appeal and passion for social issues, including her opposition to abortion rights, energized party conservatives who had been suspicious of McCain over such topics as immigration policy.
Yet critical independent voters came to question Palin's qualifications, especially after less-than-impressive television interviews. The Alaska governor became an object of ridicule on programs such as Saturday Night Live.
"I don't see how he could have energized his base without her," Luntz says, "but I don't see how he could have gotten the needed independents with her."
Independents ultimately supported Obama over McCain, 52% to 44%, according to voter surveys on Election Day.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says the prospect of a 72-year-old president magnified voters' concerns about Palin's qualifications.
Palin has her defenders. GOP strategist Mark Corallo says the campaign "mishandled" her introduction to the public, shielding her too long and overemphasizing interviews with network anchors.
Republican strategist Rich Galen points out that less than half the electorate considered Palin an important factor. "With the collapse of the economy," he says, "no Republican was going to get elected."
On Sept. 24, after huddling with advisers about the Bush administration's proposed $750 billion bailout package, McCain startled the political world by announcing he would suspend his campaign and return to Washington to deal with the economic crisis.
When the first presidential debate took place two days later, Obama aide David Axelrod and other Democrats began describing McCain as "erratic."
"Not only did he look erratic, but he then took partial ownership of the deal, which many voters despise," says Greg Valliere, chief political strategist with the Stanford Financial Group.
Salter says McCain wanted to show voters he was working on a solution. He "did the absolute responsible thing for this country," Salter says, "as he always does."
Potshots from pundits?
As McCain supporters watched returns at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, they blamed his loss in part on what they saw as "biased" news media coverage and McCain's failure to challenge Obama's questionable associations, such as with pastor Jeremiah Wright.
"It seemed that the media only focused on Obama winning," said author Sheila Sorrentino, 57, of Anthem, Ariz.
Craig Harmon, 53, a Phoenix area property appraiser, said, "Mr. McCain should have taken the gloves off earlier," with respect to Wright and other parts of Obama's background.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres notes "there are always things you could do differently," but the fact is McCain faced too many obstacles — among them Obama's nearly flawless campaign.
McCain senior aide Steve Schmidt says the Arizona senator faced "a lot of headwind," including polls showing less than 10% of Americans believe the country is on the right track.
"At the end of the day," he says, "that wind was too great."