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Early Exit

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After several senior staffers resigned from Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign on Tuesday, many observers wondered, "When will McCain drop out?" The answer probably depends on the definition of "out."

The beleaguered Arizona Republican will likely remain a candidate in the technical sense until the end of the year so that he can qualify for federal matching funds and pay off his campaign debts. When McCain's anemic financial figures started leaking out, political reporters focused on how little money the campaign had raised, how much it had spent, and how puny its cash-on-hand total was for the second consecutive quarter. Nobody asked about the debt.

For all intents and purposes, McCain's campaign is over. The physicians have pulled up the sheet; the executors of the estate are taking over. Paying bills and winding down -- not strategizing, organizing, and getting a message out -- will be the order of the day.

So what ruined McCain's campaign? The senator didn't have one problem; he had several. The impression he made on Republican activists and voters during his 2000 presidential bid was as a maverick, a reformer, a contender with a strong independent streak who rode the "Straight Talk Express."

Many journalists sucked down the Kool-Aid, falling in love with a Republican who sounded candid and irreverent. But eight years ago, McCain and his camp learned the hard way that mavericks can get great press, but they don't get nominated. As Bill Bradley discovered that year, the party members and activists who decide presidential nominations see "maverick" as the opposite of "team player."

Heading into the 2008 campaign, McCain sought to reposition himself as a team player, paying homage at Liberty University to evangelicals, courting other social conservatives, and mending fences with party officials. He stuck to the party line as much as he was capable of doing, saying the things the GOP rank and file wanted to hear.

But on the way from maverick to team player, McCain ended up stuck in political purgatory. GOP voters no longer saw him as a straight talker and straight shooter, but the Republican establishment never embraced him. To many conservatives, McCain's campaign finance reform law is proof that he is neither a real conservative nor a reliable Republican. They view campaign finance reform as an inherently liberal effort that only hurts the GOP.

So one group no longer trusts McCain, and the other never did. Meanwhile, the love-stricken media passengers on the 2000 Straight Talk Express feel betrayed that their maverick went establishment on them.

McCain's second problem is Iraq, of course. Although many Democrats and independents fervently oppose the war, most Republicans still support Bush and the war. But Republicans' intensity of support has waned as the war has become an albatross around their party's neck. They cannot afford to nominate a presidential candidate whose name has become synonymous with the surge.

Then there is immigration. McCain's presidential hopes didn't need another nail in the coffin, but immigration provided one. Regardless of the merits or substance of the comprehensive immigration package that McCain endorsed, no one could sell it within the GOP in 2007. Dubbed "amnesty" by its foes, the legislation became radioactive, and supporting it was untenable for any GOP presidential candidate.

Finally, it shouldn't be a shock that someone whose penchant for campaign finance reform and disdain for fundraising are legendary couldn't raise enough money. McCain doesn't enjoy asking for money, isn't great at it -- and didn't put his campaign in the hands of people who loved it, were good at it, and were willing to crack heads to make sure the senator's followers delivered on their pledges. McCain assembled a world-class campaign operation, but it lacked a sufficiently powerful money-generating engine.

The seeds for the demise of McCain's candidacy were planted before this campaign began. His strong-minded views put him at odds with the lowest-common-denominator nature of American politics these days. Like it or not, politics today is about trimming one's views to fit what's popular, and John McCain is not a trimmer.

 
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