PHOENIX — John McCain survived three airplane crashes, more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, the Keating Five political scandal and being written off as a presidential candidate in 2000 and 2008.
But Tuesday night, McCain couldn't survive Barack Obama's well-oiled campaign and the tide of history, as voters elected America's first African-American president.
By all accounts, McCain shouldn't even have come close. The electoral environment was toxic for Republicans in 2008, given the nation's economic crisis, opposition to the war in Iraq and the abysmal approval ratings of President Bush, the titular head of the Republican Party, whom McCain stood by on most matters.
"We fought our way through the most challenging environment in my lifetime," said Mark Salter, McCain's senior adviser and the co-author of the Arizona' senator's autobiographical books, before the results were known. "And it was one damn thing after another.
"The campaign starts off, the frontrunner goes bust and implodes, fighting his way through New Hampshire with no finances to put into another state. Huge celebrity wins the Democratic nomination and beats (Hillary) Clinton to do it. The economy is awful. Bush is deeply unpopular. Win or lose, he (McCain) ought to be very proud of what he's managed to do in this campaign."
McCain's campaign may have been a victim of circumstances, but it also suffered from self-inflicted wounds, according to knowledgeable Republicans inside and outside the campaign.
His inability to stick to a prevailing theme while his rival stuck to a message of change; his decision to suspend his campaign to return to Washington and deal unsuccessfully with the economic crisis; and — some said — his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate all contributed to his downfall, several campaign officials, associates, and Republican observers said.
"What was the message?" said Bill Dal Col, a McCain campaign contributor and GOP operative who managed publisher Steve Forbes' 1996 presidential campaign. "I know they worked hard to get it out, but all the public knew about John McCain was anti-terror: stop."
A former McCain campaign aide was more succinct.
"They were heavy on tactics, light on strategy," said the aide, who requested anonymity because of his fondness for McCain. "You could count the number of themes it had on your fingers and toes: Country First, Reform, Peace, Prosperity, the economy, and so on and so on."
The message problem crystallized in September, when the economic crisis exploded. The morning that the Lehman Brothers investment bank went down, McCain said the fundamentals of the nation's economy were sound. He then spent days backtracking, shifting to warning that the economy is in "crisis."
"That was the canary in the coal mine," Dal Col said.
To demonstrate his commitment to solving the crisis, McCain suspended his campaign to rush back to Washington to work on an economic rescue package. The gambit was to show McCain as a man of action. He didn't rush to Washington right away, however, but stayed in New York to do an interview with CBS News anchor Katie Couric and a speech for former President Bill Clinton's foundation.
In announcing his decision, McCain canceled an appearance on David Letterman's TV show. When Letterman found out that McCain was taping the Couric interview instead of flying to Washington, Letterman launched a nearly nine-minute comedic tirade against McCain that received enormous traffic on YouTube. Letterman kept it up night after night for weeks.
On Tuesday, Dal Col said McCain fumbled the episode.
"It fell apart, going to the White House and not doing anything," Dal Col said. "It's almost like he set himself up."
Some McCain associates and GOP officials said that McCain also suffered from his decision to seek to consolidate the party's conservative Republican base during the general election instead of during the primaries. That left an opening for Obama to cultivate the independent-minded voters that were supposed to be McCain's strength.
"The campaign should have been solidifying the conservative base in the months after he had the nomination, when no one was paying attention" said the former McCain aide. "Instead they were running a general election campaign in the spring, going on a poverty tour, the 'Black Belt' in Appalachia. Had they tended to the base earlier, then there would be no need for a Sarah Palin-like pick because conservatives would have been on board."
The choice of Palin elicited mixed reactions.
Some called her selection genius in the immediate afterglow of the Republican convention. She gave the McCain campaign a chance for voters to make history by electing the first woman vice president. It also made evangelical conservatives, who were always wobbly on McCain, a little less nervous, and her eagerness at attacking on the stump freed McCain to appeal more to centrists, for awhile.
But the Palin glow didn't last long. Interviews revealed a candidate whose knowledge was shallow on domestic and international issues, and the selection of the freshman governor undercut McCain's attacks on Obama, a freshman senator, for being inexperienced. That, in turn, raised questions about whether McCain's most important single decision was considered — or impulsive.
"It caused a huge number of voters to question his (McCain's) judgment," said one GOP official, who asked not to be identified so as not to appear disloyal to McCain. "It mitigated the experience argument. It was a choice designed to appeal to the base in a year when the Republican base is as small as it's been in decades."
Palin's performance disappointed many leading Republicans, spurring the likes of former Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Reagan White House chief of staff Ken Duberstein and neoconservative Kenneth Adelman to endorse Obama.
Meanwhile, some McCain campaign officials grew annoyed by Palin, accusing her of being a "diva" for publicly disagreeing with the campaign's decision to abandon Michigan and suggesting that they stress Obama's relationship with the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright. She didn't heed instructions, they said, and she didn't always stay "on message."
McCain campaign chief strategist Steve Schmidt hedged when he was asked Tuesday about Palin's performance.
"I think that, you know, I think we'll know in a few hours what the results are, you know and I, there'll be a time for all the post-mortem parts of it," Schmidt said aboard McCain's Straight Talk Express plane as it neared the end of its last campaign flight.
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