The New York Times has a truly bittersweet piece on Senator John McCain trying to regain his 2000 man-of-independence imagery by taking a train called The Straight Talk Express — a problem underscored by the fact that polls show many voters consider his sagging 2006 campaign The Pander Parade:
Senator John McCain of Arizona worked hard for years to make himself the all-but-inevitable 2008 Republican presidential nominee, assembling a formidable machine of advisers and contributors, repairing his relationship with the Bush White House and reaching out to conservatives long wary of his views.
As he began what was supposed to be a triumphant day with his first bus trip across Iowa on Thursday, he was instead faced with a sense among some Republicans that his campaign had faltered in the early going and that his political identity had been blurred rather than enhanced by his efforts to position himself as first in line for the nomination.
One of the most difficult things for a politician to do is to “be true to yourself.” McCain has walked an increasingly wobbly political tightrope since 2000 as he tried to win over parts of the GOP establishment that had squelched his campaign that year — a campaign that sparked wildly enthusiastic crowds at universities and garnered wonderful media coverage. In 2006? He has seemingly fallen off the tightrope and is coming across as just another politician who says what he has to say to win a group of voters’ votes — except on the war. MORE:
As he rolled out of Des Moines on the Straight Talk Express, the vehicle that in the 2000 campaign became a potent symbol of his message and appeal, he was in some ways starting over, reintroducing himself to voters and reporters and trying to address a host of questions that follow him everywhere he goes.
â€œEverybody says, â€˜We just want you to be like last time,â€™ â€? he said amid a welter of microphones in what turned into a daylong conversation with reporters, punctuated by the occasional meeting with voters. â€œLast time we lost! But I havenâ€™t changed any, and as we go through the town hall meetings and the debate, I can make that abundantly clear.â€?
The problem: McCain’s moment may be over. It’s “may” because if Rudy Giuliani stubs his toe with his temper or news stories surface damaging his candidacy, McCain will be there as an option for the GOP. But has he been too zig-zaggy for the GOP?
The key question is: did McCain miss his moment in history in 2000 and did he gravely misread the opening he could have had in 2008 if he had appeared more independent from the White House? In public perceptions, at least, the onetime “maverick” has morphed into the loyal White House team player.
Can a train with words on it and McCain’s assurances that he’s the same as he was in 2000 change the perceptions?
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.