"He promised change and we really didn't see change," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told reporters Wednesday. "When you look at his campaign promises … the reality has not lived up to his vision as he articulated last time for America."
Speaking at a breakfast with reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, McCain joked that he would follow in the tradition of other "losers" and not endorse in the Republican primary campaign, no matter who ultimately enters the race. His former running mate, Sarah Palin, has "not shown an inclination that she's going to run," McCain said, but she would "be very competitive" if she chose to do so.
It was four years ago this month McCain formally kicked off his second run for the White House, after an extended exploratory phase that included aggressive fundraising. At that point in 2007, almost every major contender had already launched an exploratory committee, but this year just one prominent Republican — former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty — has done the same.
McCain said he did not think the 2012 campaign was off to as slow a start as conventional wisdom would suggest, but noted that there is a financial incentive for some candidates to delay their decisions.
"When you declare, then you're subject to all kinds of restrictions. Now, with this way that campaign finances are, you can literally raise unlimited amounts of money before you declare yourself a candidate. So there's a practical fiscal side of this decision-making," he said.
Likely Republican candidates instead continue an underground campaign of courting activists in key primary and caucus states, making targeted visits and speeches to test potential themes for full campaign.
Many of those candidates must also grapple with their potential vulnerabilities, which McCain advised them to address sooner rather than later.
"It's obvious that Governor [Mitt] Romney — and I'm grateful for his help in my campaign, he's a good friend — but obviously he's going to have to confront the issue of the Massachusetts healthcare issue," he offered as one example, pointing to Romney's signing of healthcare legislation in Massachusetts that Democrats say served as a model for Obama's national plan.
The nature of the GOP primary electorate could be far different than the one that nominated McCain four years ago. McCain said as he ran, national security issues were pre-eminent, which gave him an advantage. Today, voters are "obviously" most concerned with the economy.
"The priorities are very different, which I think might help — and I emphasize might — help somebody who has governed a state and has done so successfully," he said. "Maybe this time the American electorate is interested in someone who has a proven record rather than rhetoric."
Obama is beatable, but McCain said it is important that Republicans nominate a strong candidate against him.
"I think that the majority of the voters will decide on economic issues, as is the case virtually every presidential election outside of ones in which we are in armed conflict," McCain said. "And I think the president's chances will be improved if the economy continues to improve."
A new NBC News/Washington Post poll released Wednesday suggests a wide-open field. Among voters nationally, Romney led a hypothetical nine-person field with 21%. Donald Trump, the boisterous media mogul flirting with a presidential run as he promotes his reality television series, finished tied for second with 17% support, along with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (11%) and Palin (10%) round out the top five.