The McCain campaign's abrupt decision to lash out at Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper on abortion is a last ditch bid to revive a candidate whose poll numbers and financial resources are dwindling.
The McCain camp recognizes that its original strategy of establishing front-runner status and claiming the honored position of "next in line" is now in tatters -- leaving McCain with nothing but highly unpleasant choices.
He and his strategists have decided to risk everything on a high-visibility, direct assault on Romney, praying that it will draw enough press attention to wound the former Massachusetts governor.
The McCain attack violates the GOP orthodoxy embodied in Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment, "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican." If the tactic fails, the McCain campaign may be effectively over.
"Mitt Romney's biggest challenge in this election will be convincing Republicans he has principled positions on important issues, especially now that it's known that he remained committed to pro-choice policies after his 'epiphany' on abortion in 2004. In stark contrast, John McCain has a consistent 24 year pro-life record," declared Matt David, McCain's Deputy Communications Director, in an email sent out at 1:00 P.M. Wednesday.
In a series of three email replies, the Romney campaign sought to rebut McCain. "Good afternoon, folks -- Lovely day to rapidly respond to desperate, faltering campaigns, isn't it?" one stated. But the substance of the McCain-Romney altercation is far less important than what the dispute says about the state of McCain's operation.
McCain and his backers have watched in the past week as he dropped from number two to number three in the polls, behind both Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson. RealClearPolitics.com calculated that after averaging the six most recent surveys, Giuliani stood at 26.1 percent, Fred Thompson at 16.6 percent, McCain at 15.9 and Romney at 10.4.
McCain has targeted Romney because of Romney's lead in the early caucus and primary states. Romney has been spending more than $4 million on advertising to take first place in polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and he is expected to attempt to launch television ads soon in South Carolina.
The net result has been the marginalization of McCain. Marginal candidates cannot raise money, making it much more difficult for McCain to compete in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the three early primary states that can make or break campaigns.
If the media and other forces follow the McCain campaign's lead, the attack on Romney will prevent him from consolidating his front-runner position in the early primaries and caucuses. The unexpected change in McCain's status has forced what some see as a Hail Mary pass.
Seven years ago in South Carolina, McCain, then leading in the polls, was goaded into attacking George W. Bush. The results were disastrous. At a veterans' rally for Bush in 2000, Thomas Burch, head of a group called the National Vietnam & Gulf War Veterans Coalition, charged that after McCain was elected to Congress, McCain "abandoned the veterans. He came home from Vietnam and forgot us."
A furious McCain charged that Bush "twists the truth like President Clinton." McCain ran an anti-Bush ad asking, "Do we really want another politician in the White House America can't trust?"
Bush accused McCain of violating Reagan's 11th Commandmen. At a debate, he told McCain: "You can disagree with me on issues, John, but do not question my trustworthiness and do not compare me with Bill Clinton." McCain lost the high ground in South Carolina. Then he lost the primary.