He's too liberal. Too old. Too bellicose. Too much a maverick. A man of the past.
John McCain's critics offer up a lengthy bill of particulars against him, and until a few weeks ago they sounded very convincing. Then something remarkable happened. The 71-year-old senator from Arizona and former Vietnam POW started winning primaries. First was New Hampshire. Then South Carolina. And last week, in his most stunning comeback of all, McCain won Florida with 36 percent of the vote to Mitt Romney's 31, Rudy Giuliani's 15, and Mike Huckabee's 14. This vaulted him into the lead for the Republican presidential nomination and set off an impressive set of endorsements—including the backing of Giuliani, who dropped out, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the popular governor of California, which holds an important Super Tuesday primary this week.
Jubilant. McCain's sudden rise was all the more extraordinary because his campaign was widely written off by pundits and GOP strategists last year, when he ran out of cash and sank in the polls. But after fighting back in a divided party and amid a fractured field on the strength of support of national-security conservatives, moderates, independents, and the failure of anyone else to catch on, McCain was jubilant. "We have a ways to go, but we're getting close," he told cheering supporters on the night of his Florida triumph. Not that he has the nomination locked up. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and longtime businessman, is still a formidable contender with strong appeal among economic and social conservatives and a personal fortune that he has spent freely.
Yet the overarching fact in the presidential race is that all the candidates, both Republican and Democrat, have a ways to go in overcoming Americans' doubts about them. As voters prepare to cast ballots in 24 states that hold nominating primaries, caucuses, and conventions this week, no one has proved to be the unifying figure that so many Americans are seeking. "Voters are trying to determine who would be the best president, who has the judgment and the character to deal with the unexpected and the ability to lead," says Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff for Ronald Reagan. "But electing a president is always a riverboat gamble."
Many Republicans feel there is no true conservative in the race who can unite the GOP. This lack of enthusiasm is reflected in the relatively low turnout of GOP voters in the primaries, compared with the Democrats. "The Republican Party is struggling to figure out what it stands for," says a GOP strategist.
Under Reagan, the answer was simple—lower taxes, less government, a strong national defense, standing up to communism, and a return to the traditional American virtues of family and patriotism. But now, none of the Republican candidates has been able to do what Reagan did in uniting social, economic, national-security, and libertarian conservatives, so the choice this week will be a leap of faith for each segment.
McCain, for example, still needs to deal with questions about his age. If elected, he would be the oldest president to take office at 72. In polls, more than half of Americans consistently say it would be "undesirable" if the commander in chief were 70 or older. For their part, McCain's advisers urge critics to watch McCain's pace and energy level during his 18-hour campaign days to see his fitness for the job.
McCain has some additional problems that were prominently featured by Romney in his attacks on McCain in Florida. One is McCain's support for a "path to citizenship" for illegal workers, which his critics say amounts to a form of amnesty. (McCain denies it.) Another is his opposition to President Bush's tax cuts during Bush's first term. (McCain says he couldn't support the cuts without deep spending reductions, which never happened.) "He alienates people, one group or constituency at a time, and calls it straight talk," says a prominent Republican strategist not aligned with a candidate this year.