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On Sept. 21, six days after the stunning collapse of Lehman Bros. Holdings Inc., one of Wall Street’s largest and oldest investment banks, John McCain devoted a total of three sentences to voters’ economic worries in his only campaign event of the day, a speech at a National Guard convention in Baltimore.
Three days later, the Republican presidential nominee pronounced the financial crisis so dire that he needed to suspend his campaign, cancel the first presidential debate and rush back to Washington to help forge a solution to a national emergency. McCain’s dramatic move not only failed, his baffling shifts in tactics and message backfired so badly he lost his lead in national polls and never recovered. Both sides now say Barack Obama essentially clinched his victory in late September.
“Images of the two candidates changed dramatically,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist. “Obama came across as commanding and knowledgeable, cool, calm. McCain seemed a little bit unsettled, moving from pillar to post.”
As dispirited Republicans sift through the wreckage of Tuesday’s results, many argue that McCain was crippled by public anger at President Bush’s failures at home and abroad. McCain echoed the claim in his concession speech when he said he didn’t know what else he could have done to win.
But if McCain was dealt a bad hand, experts say, he often played it poorly. In decision after decision, he and his aides created problems for themselves and failed to press the advantages they had. High among them was McCain’s inability to connect with Latino voters.
McCain had hoped Latinos would reward his efforts in Congress to help the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants get on the path to citizenship. But under pressure from his party’s right wing, McCain had abandoned his own proposals during the primaries and instead stressed increasing border security.
The result: He won support from less than a third of Latinos who voted, far fewer than President Bush did four years ago. The difference helped doom McCain in Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, all states that Bush had won.
Steve Schmidt, one of McCain’s top aides, blamed the Republican Party, not the candidate. The GOP “has done all that it can possibly do to antagonize Latino voters in this country,” he complained.
He called it “one of the great ironies or tragedies” that McCain “wound up being punished by Hispanic voters furious at a party they view as hostile” by “taking it out on the candidate who was their best friend.”
The Palin problem
McCain’s choice of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate helped him with social conservatives. But her views and her performance in interviews alienated many of the independent and swing voters he most needed, and she became a drag on the ticket.
Palin’s aides blame McCain’s staff for constraining her on the stump and exacerbating her problems. They cited a daily struggle between staffers at headquarters and those on the plane, with little cohesion or communication.
“I don’t know if you can honestly say things went wrong,” said a senior aide to Palin. “I just think they were probably mismanaged.” Exhibit No. 1: the decision to buy $150,000 in clothes and accessories for Palin during the Republican National Convention. Three fashion consultants showed up, the aide said, and “decided, ‘Well, we’re going to go out and dress you up.’ They were with us three times. By the third time, she did not like them. . . . No one liked these women.”
McCain’s aides, not surprisingly, blame forces outside their control. Charlie Black, one of McCain’s top advisors, argued that McCain’s tactical missteps, even on the economy, were “not very important” compared with the brutal political environment that any GOP candidate faced.
“We had an unpopular Republican president, an unpopular war, a financial crisis, and the press was more against us than at any time in my lifetime,” he said.
The Bush problem
But Obama made sure that voters linked McCain inextricably to Bush and his policies. From the start, Axelrod said, the election always was “going to be about George W. Bush.”
At every stage, Obama’s speeches, interviews, mailings and paid advertising reinforced the message that McCain, who had voted for 90% of Bush’s policies, essentially represented a third Bush term.
McCain only formulated a strong response in the third presidential debate with Obama, on Oct. 15, when he memorably declared: “I am not George Bush. If you wanted to run against George Bush, you should have run four years ago.”
It was too late. Anxious not to antagonize the core Republican base that still backed Bush, McCain had labeled himself an independent “maverick,” and rarely mentioned Bush’s name on the campaign trail. But he never openly broke with the president. At the same time, McCain’s campaign tried out and discarded a series of contradictory arguments, never settling on a single compelling narrative.
McCain would tout his four terms in the Senate, but insist that he represented change. He would boast of seeking bipartisanship in Congress, then deliver a roaring attack on congressional Democrats.
Obama’s aides, in turn, argued that McCain’s experience made him appear a creature of Washington. They saw Obama’s campaign, in contrast, as sufficient qualification for most voters in and of itself. “Campaigns are essentially trials,” Axelrod said. “They’re endurance contests to see who has the stamina and fortitude. If you pass that test, you’ve gone a long way.”
But to prove himself on the world stage, Obama took a weeklong trip to the Middle East, Europe and Afghanistan in July. He met heads of state and spoke to an estimated 200,000 cheering fans in the streets of Berlin. McCain’s team pounced, quickly unveiling an ad that mocked Obama as a “celebrity” like Paris Hilton.
It turned the Democrat’s strength into a weakness. As gas prices soared, McCain went on the offensive, calling for a resumption of offshore drilling. With Obama on the defensive for the first time, McCain began to creep up in polls, taking the lead in early September.
The biggest problem
Then the bottom fell out.
Early on Sept. 15, as Americans were absorbing news of the Lehman Bros. collapse, McCain told a crowd in Jacksonville, Fla., that the “fundamentals of the economy are strong.”
At McCain headquarters in Arlington, Va., an aide interrupted Schmidt in a meeting. Schmidt grabbed the first plane to Florida and, hoping to limit the damage, booked McCain on TV shows, here he tried to reframe his comment as a defense of the American worker.
But the damage was done. McCain compounded his problem by calling for creation of a study group one day and the firing of the Securities and Exchange Commission chief the next, discarding his ideas as quickly as he unveiled them. He appeared unsure and unsteady.
Finally, on Wednesday, Sept. 24, McCain assembled his economic team in New York City. The White House was trying to build support for a $700-billion bailout of financial institutions, and Bush aides were signaling that Republicans would follow McCain’s lead.
McCain’s aides saw two choices — stay out of the negotiations and get blamed if the deal collapsed, or return and try put a more palatable package together. “Either way, we were in a truly terrible position,” Schmidt said. Returning to Washington at least offered “control over our destiny.”
But McCain’s appearance at the White House meeting proved a disaster. Afterward, Bush began appearing on television, day after day, seeking to calm the nation. McCain’s poll numbers fell almost as fast as the stock market.
“It was devastating,” a senior McCain aide said. “Devastating.”
Drogin and Reston are Times staff writers.
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