The Soft Launch

How the senator plans to catch Rudy.

Sen. John McCain . Click image to expand.
Sen. John McCain

On Wednesday night, John McCain broke the news that he is running for president on the Late Show With David Letterman. The formal announcement won’t come until April, but the “soft launch,” as an adviser called it, was vintage McCain—candid and messy. The Arizona senator poked fun at the political charade of his drawn-out announcement and said soldiers’ lives had been “wasted” in Iraq, a comment he was apologizing for the next day.

McCain’s ambitions are no secret, but the venue was a surprise. There was a bit of risk in going on Letterman, if for no other reason than that Bob Dole did the same thing in 1995. No candidate running for any office on any planet should ever steal from the Dole playbook. McCain has particular reason to avoid the parallels. Dole’s gambit was seen as an effort to come off as youthful, so as to head off questions about his not young age. McCain, who will be 72 * on Inauguration Day, faces the same questions.

McCain probably chose the Late Show to bring a little mirth to a campaign that so far has been a lot less jolly than his last run. As the senator has told supporters privately, the press and his opponents are waiting for him to show his age or his temper. Having to be hyper-cautious all the time irritates him. In 2000, there were glowing stories about his swashbuckling maverick style. This time, the coverage is more often about how he’s muffled his straight talk. McCain supports a troop increase in Iraq that nearly 70 percent of the country opposes. He gets criticized from the right for pandering to his moderate base and he gets criticized from the left for abandoning that moderate base to pander to conservatives.

McCain also trails Rudy Giuliani by almost 20 points in the latest Time and ABC/Washington Post polls. For now, the McCain team is taking a measured approach to the widening gap. Their principal strategy is to wait and let Giuliani fall of his own weight. Once conservatives learn about Giuliani’s pro-choice, pro-gun control, and pro-gay-rights positions, McCain aides expect, their rival’s support will diminish considerably. Giuliani’s commitment to conservative judges took a knock Thursday, and Giuliani supporter and former solicitor general Ted Olson went right on the air to rebut the charges to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. As Giuliani’s own research suggests, the press is also likely to cover his three marriages, business dealings, and experience during the Vietnam War. The McCain campaign will make no Clintonlike efforts to draw their rival off-sides, at least for the moment. They will hope the press does their work for them (sometimes with their guidance).

McCain is also relying on front-runner-sized structure and organization to beat Rudy. The mayor may be popular, they argue, but he lacks the state-by-state organization required to actually win the nomination. McCain and his team have been building that groundwork for two years.

Their best weapon at this stage, they think, is the candidate himself. So, they’re getting McCain on the road. He will increasingly be out in the country, away from the Senate and among voters in the kind of free-flowing town halls that were his signature in 2000. This serves several purposes. A frenetic schedule and McCain’s energy on stage offer reassurance about his health and vigor. The format, if it stays genuine, allows McCain to connect with the audience even if some of them disagree with him. It also clearly energizes him.

The challenge is that McCain obviously has a lot more to answer for now than he did when he was an insurgent candidate. The big risk is that McCain’s looser talk will lead to mistakes, like his remark to Letterman that “we’ve wasted a lot of our most precious treasure, which is American lives.” (Barack Obama, who had to apologize for a similar remark, graciously and shrewdly came to McCain’s defense).

Unless the GOP finds a fantasy candidate they’re stuck with McCain, Giuliani, and Romney. Which means the conservative vote is up for grabs. McCain’s advisers know their candidate has problems with conservatives but argue that of the three, he has the most conservative record. But policy positions may not make the difference. No matter how much pandering he does, McCain can’t stop conservatives from flocking to Rudy regardless of his record, either because they’re emotionally drawn to the former mayor or because they can’t stand the competition. It won’t be clear how far McCain can go until it’s clear how far Rudy will fall.

Correction, March 2: The article originally said that Sen. McCain would be 73 on Inauguration Day. (Return to the corrected sentence.)