John McCain's cratering campaign is an object lesson in how to kill a candidacy in three simple steps: 1) locate the biggest foreign policy disaster in U.S. history 2) embrace it 3) implode. (Bonus step: spend money like you are Paul Bremmer).
McCain's fate should be a warning to all Republicans seeking office in 2008: continue to back the president's war policy at your own risk.
McCain's fall has been precipitous -- tumbling from establishment GOP front-runner to single-digit also-ran.
Through much of 2005 and 2006 he was widely regarded as the presumptive Republican nominee. Hypothetical 2008 matchups regularly had him beating presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll in December 2006 had him beating Hillary by 14 points -- 50% to 36%.
That's when he decided to go all-in on Iraq, anointing himself head cheerleader for the surge.
On January 5, 2007 -- less than three weeks after that poll had him trouncing Hillary -- McCain gave a widely-covered speech at the American Enterprise Institute in which he advocated a "substantial" and "sustained" escalation in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, tying himself to President Bush and his delusion-driven New Way Forward.
The effect was similar to tying an anchor to his poll numbers and throwing them overboard. Although McCain's support had been eroding since 2006, as more and more independent voters -- always a key chunk of his fan base -- turned against the war, January 2007 marked the beginning of a nose dive.
As this pollster.com chart shows, since making himself the face of the surge, McCain's national support has dropped from nearly 25 percent to just over 15 percent. And his fall in key early primary states has been even more dramatic, dropping from around 35 percent to around 17 percent in South Carolina, from 28 percent to 18 percent in New Hampshire, and from the mid-20s to just under 10 percent in Iowa. And a pair of recent Mason-Dixon polls shows him dropping even further: to 7 percent in South Carolina and 6 percent in Iowa. This should not be a surprising result given that 42 percent of Republicans are now against the war.
McCain's main competitors have clearly taken note. A story this week in the LA Times claimed that the three leading GOP presidential contenders "have been quietly backing away from any commitment to continuing" the surge.
Mitt Romney has said that if Gen. Petraeus' September assessment finds the surge isn't working, "we'll have to take alternative strategies." Fred Thompson said that Iraq policy had to be considered "on a day-to-day basis." And Rudy Giuliani said he had "a lot of questions" about the troop surge strategy. Conversely, McCain ended the week by traveling to New Hampshire, site of his greatest electoral victory in 2000, and offering a full-throated defense of the war.
The coup de grace for McCain's chances might have come with his infamous stroll through a Baghdad market, which he claimed was proof you could "walk freely" through parts of the city. The subsequent reveal that he'd been accompanied on his stroll by 100 armed U.S. soldiers, three Blackhawk helicopters, and two Apache gunships, proved beyond a doubt that he had traded his signature straight talk for deceptive triumphalist blather.
McCain's biggest red flag used to be his temper; now it's his sanity. His claims on Iraq have become more and more delusional, and now have the same level of credibility as Phil Spector's dating tips.
It's gotten so bad, he's reverted to the desperate ploy of pretending that the only people opposing the war belong to -- as he put it on the Senate floor -- "the liberal left." As opposed to the conservative left, Senator? Are we to believe that those 42 percent of Republicans in favor of ending the war have joined "the liberal left"?
The final bit of evidence of McCain's growing disconnect from reality (another way he's aligned himself with Bush) came with the news that two of his top campaign aides had quit. Faced with questions over whether his campaign was falling apart, McCain insisted, "I am very happy with where the campaign is."
Given his latest poll numbers, he might be the only one who is.