McCain’s bid faltering in rough waters

Times Staff Writer

Sen. John McCain slid this winter from presumed favorite to beleaguered underdog in the Republican presidential contest. He retooled his campaign in hopes of a comeback. But now he faces a distressing question that few would have posed just months ago: Will he even be able to stay in the race?

From both right and left, McCain’s challenges have mounted.

His push to overhaul immigration laws, which collapsed in Congress this week, has stirred a fierce conservative backlash. That widening breach with conservatives has helped rivals Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson advance.

At the same time, Rudolph W. Giuliani’s recent dip in the polls has been too slight to help McCain; the former New York mayor still undercuts the Arizona senator’s onetime base of support among moderates.


The robust competition also has stoked doubts about McCain’s general-election viability, already in question because of his outspoken support of President Bush’s unpopular troop buildup in Iraq.

It is a tough cycle for McCain to break. And another turn for the worse may loom.

His opponents’ strength, and his own continuing weaknesses, have made it harder for the senator to recover from early trouble raising money. And those cash problems could deteriorate further if McCain fails to show a fundraising rebound for the three-month reporting period that closes today.

Many who saw him last year as the favorite for the GOP nod now view his White House bid as “flat-out dead,” Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan election analyst, wrote this week in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newsletter.

“They aren’t saying it’s tough for him to win the Republican nomination or that he’s an underdog. They are saying he is finished. Kaput,” Rothenberg wrote.

Still, it remains too soon to completely write off McCain, Rothenberg added.

Recent history provides a reason for caution. The 2004 White House bid by Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts was widely seen as wiped out just weeks before he won the Iowa caucuses, a victory that propelled him to the Democratic nomination.

McCain told reporters this week that his campaign was “doing fine,” but he conceded that he was having a “very difficult” time raising money. He also said it would be “nuts” to drop out of the race six months before voters start casting ballots.

That McCain would even confront the possibility reflects the sheer weight of grim developments that have beset his campaign.

“The confluence of forces is so strong right now, I don’t see how he gets out of the ditch,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican media strategist who worked for Giuliani when he was mayor of New York.

McCain’s most immediate problem is money. At the end of March, he had $5.2 million in the bank, a relatively small sum for the top contenders in this campaign and less than half as much as Romney or Giuliani. In April, McCain shook up his fundraising operation and scaled back his cadre of consultants. But advisors have hinted in recent days that donations in the year’s second quarter could also prove disappointing.

This week, he has spent much of his time racing around the country to raise money, with stops in New York, New Jersey, Virginia, South Carolina, Illinois and Arizona.

The longtime champion of campaign-finance reform -- another sore spot for many conservatives -- also collected money from lobbyists and others at a private reception on Capitol Hill.

John Weaver, the campaign’s chief strategist, attributed the money problems to McCain’s effort to curb the influence of special interests over defense contracts and congressional appropriations. He said McCain would ultimately raise what he needs to compete in the primaries.

Weaver also called the race “wide open.”

McCain’s stances on immigration and Iraq may have hurt him in the short term, he said, but would not keep him from overtaking Thompson, Romney and Giuliani.

“There’s going to be several flavors of the month,” Weaver said. “But at the end of the day, we live in such momentous times, this is about character and leadership, and there’s one candidate who has it.”

Still, McCain’s rift with conservatives, the party’s core constituency, remains a formidable obstacle. Many have begun rallying behind Thompson. The former Tennessee senator, an actor who played a prosecutor on NBC’s “Law & Order,” is on the verge of joining the race.

Also picking up support, at least in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, has been Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.

“Everybody’s nipping away at different pieces of McCain’s mojo,” said Wilson, the GOP media strategist.

For McCain, who clashed with social conservatives in his 2000 bid for president, the recent uproar over immigration has only heightened their wariness of him. Most vexing to many was his support for legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants.

“A lot of the conservative base sees him as wrong on one of the principal issues of the day,” said Mark J. Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia.

“That is going to hurt him significantly with those voters, who tend to be the biggest-turnout voters in nominating campaigns,” Rozell said.

In the run-up to 2008, McCain has tried to reconcile with fiscal conservatives, calling for a permanent extension of Bush tax cuts that he once voted against. He also has made overtures to the religious right.

Yet a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll this month found 1 in 4 conservative Republicans would not vote for McCain under any circumstances. No other GOP candidate met such strong resistance from that group.

“He can mouth the right words, but they just don’t see him as one of them,” Rozell said.

A former Vietnam prisoner of war, McCain has been playing up his Navy ties, as he did in 2000. In an e-mail this week, he urged supporters to take the long view on the campaign, reminding them of the “steady strain” that sailors try to keep on lines between ships floating side by side. Sudden jerks, he said, can snap the lines.

“Politics certainly is not a business of calm seas and light breezes,” he wrote. “More like a ship in a storm, in campaign life we ride the high crests and sail through low troughs. I’ve been at the very top, and I’ve suffered through the challenges of the bottom.”