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.
Not backing down. McCain has been under strong attack even from conservative talk-show hosts, especially Rush Limbaugh. If McCain is nominated, "It's going to destroy the Republican Party," says Limbaugh. "It's going to change it forever, be the end of it. A lot of people aren't going to vote. You watch." Former House Republican leader Tom DeLay has said he could not vote for McCain because the senator is not a conservative. But during the MSNBC debate in Florida on January 24, McCain wouldn't back down. He insisted he won't cater to conservatives or anyone else, saying, "I have a very, very conservative record." He added: "I'll put my country above my party every single time."
Romney is still fighting his flip-flop image, thanks to his record of changing his views on important social issues. He now opposes abortion rights and gay rights, and critics consider him too slick and opportunistic. "He panders, and people don't like that," says a leading Republican with close ties to Capitol Hill. Romney says he experienced a genuine change of heart.
He has another problem: his Mormon faith, which some evangelicals consider a cult. Romney says his faith is fundamentally important to him but it will remain a private matter and not influence his decisions as president. What he does consider important is that he is an outsider who, he says, will bring new ideas and fresh perspective to the White House. "Washington's broken," Romney says, arguing that only an outsider can fix it.
Huckabee's stand on various issues also has been unpalatable to key GOP segments. Support for tax increases in Arkansas angered economic conservatives, and his inexperience with national-security issues has troubled others. His granting of clemency to violent felons upset law-and-order conservatives. And his frequent references to his faith unsettle some. "He has his niche as the friendly, smiling evangelist but he needs to expand his evangelical base," says one critic. "Evangelicals are an element in the Republican coalition, not the entire coalition."
On the Democratic side, the election of either of the front-runners, Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, would put the first woman or the first African-American in the Oval Office. But each has serious vulnerabilities. "Hillary needs to be more hopeful in her message and show off her likable qualities," says a prominent Democrat. "Barack needs to show he is tough enough, that he can take a punch and throw a punch when he has to, and that he can put meat on the bones of his policy proposals."
Many consider Clinton too polarizing to win over independents, a point Obama emphasized last week. She is criticized for being too calculating, ruthless, and liberal, based on her reputation as first lady. Other critics, including Obama during his campaign in South Carolina, say she—and husband Bill—will do anything to win. Others say her husband would be too influential in the White House, undermining her claims that she would be a strong, independent leader.
Obama has charisma and likability. But, as Clinton has often pointed out, his Washington résumé is thin. Many voters are concerned about his lack of experience and, at 46, his relative youth and whether his conciliatory approach undermines his toughness. He is faulted by some for not providing enough detail in his policy prescriptions, especially when compared with Clinton's expertise.
Another challenge is to persuade white Americans to accept the first African-American president. He won over white voters in Iowa but captured only one quarter of whites in South Carolina.
As the campaign moves forward, candidates' flaws rather than their strengths are dominating the debate. And as the process bounces along, it is coming down to a matter of risk assessment as voters make choices on who should be their next commander in chief.