When Sen. John McCain wrapped up his historic comeback from a flat broke also-ran to presumptive Republican nominee, conservatives openly fretted about how the Arizona senator would persuade the party base to vote for a man many didn't trust.
It didn't matter that McCain had a solid lifetime conservative rating from right-leaning groups that tracked votes during his four years as a congressman and two-plus decades in the Senate. This was a guy, after all, who joined Democrats to push campaign finance and immigration reforms and, though he has since reversed himself, once bucked President Bush on tax cuts and torture. And McCain helped broker a bipartisan deal that prevented Senate filibusters of Bush's Supreme Court nominees, though he also blocked a conservative scheme to enshrine the ban in the Constitution.
Heroic narrative. But back in February, when McCain had finished off his primary challengers, GOP strategist Ed Rogers had a ready answer for skeptics. "Here's how he wins," Rogers said, producing a copy of Chapter 9 of The Nightingale's Song, the 1996 book by journalist and Vietnam War veteran Robert Timberg, who chronicled the lives of five Naval Academy graduates, including McCain. The chapter tells of McCain's refusal to accept early release from a North Vietnamese POW camp, an offer made because his father (who, like his grandfather, became a four-star admiral) was then commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific.
The book helped consecrate what became McCain's national persona and mythic campaign narrative: a badly wounded young Navy pilot's survival and self-described 5½-year prison transformation from a selfish, temper-plagued rogue who graduated at the bottom of his Naval Academy class to a man ready to serve his country. McCain, who, at 72, would become the nation's oldest first-term president, burnished that persona in his own book, Faith of My Fathers, published during his failed 2000 presidential run.
But the McCain brand in recent weeks has taken a beating. In reaching out to that still-restive conservative base, McCain, a gambler partial to craps, in late August put his own history on the line. A survivor of several bouts of dangerous skin cancer, he picked an untested and, critics say, largely unqualified running mate in Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whom he barely knew. And he launched a negative campaign against Democratic Sen. Barack Obama that has unleashed outbursts of nativism and racism at his rallies that have appeared at times to even startle the nominee. The Palin gambit initially worked in hard-fought states like Florida. "When he named her and settled on the theme that they would be the ticket for change, he really altered the campaign's dynamic and momentum here," says Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political science professor. "But days later, the economic crisis overshadowed everything."
Even some of McCain's most ardent supporters say they have been stunned by the campaign's singular, provocative focus on painting Obama as "dangerous" and a "pal" of terrorists because he served on an education reform board in the 1990s with 1960s-era antiwar extremist William Ayers, now an education professor in Chicago. "The campaign is heavy into character assassination," says a longtime McCain admirer who, like many, believed that McCain, with his maverick flashes and his appeal to independents, was the only Republican who could win this year after two terms of an unpopular GOP president. "I don't know what the hell is going on."
Polls have shown that McCain's venture, designed by Karl Rove acolyte Steve Schmidt, has hurt him and could permanently tarnish his singular brand. McCain "has made a deal with the devil," says presidential historian David Nichols. "I didn't think I'd ever see John McCain run a campaign this way." Few did. McCain himself denounced negative campaigning in 2000 on his way to losing the South Carolina primary to Bush after being victimized by nasty, anonymous smears—including claims that he fathered an out-of-wedlock black child (among his seven children, he and his second wife, Cindy, have an adopted daughter from Bangladesh).