According to private conversations with political operatives from both parties, John McCain has no choice but to adopt a high risk strategy to revive his presidential bid, a double Hail Mary: Throw one stink bomb at the White House and another at Republican National Committee headquarters.
There is no guarantee the strategy would work - in fact the odds are long against it.
McCain tried to become the establishment candidate and failed. Fred Thompson is now seeking to fill that vacuum, although the value of that position appears to have dropped sharply. "The collapse of the McCain campaign is simply a metaphor for the disintegration of the entire Republican Party establishment," conservative public relations strategist Craig Shirley noted.
Rudy Giuliani has become the post-9/11 national security candidate. Mitt Romney, in turn, appears to have locked up Iowa, where a victory will turn him into a competitor elsewhere.
The only place left for McCain is to be the anti-Bush Republican. This was his turf in 2000, and it is far more fertile ground today.
Staking out this renegade terrain does no violence to the McCain persona; instead, it fits him perfectly. It would offer McCain, one Republican operative noted, the opportunity for some tough 'straight talk' about a president and party that are widely perceived to have failed miserably - failed not only the public, but their own core constituencies, i.e., the voters who pick Republican nominees.
This is virgin territory ready to be claimed by a Republican willing 1) to describe the administration and the Republican congressional leadership as enmeshed in self-dealing and corruption; 2) prepared to assertively blame the White House for a sea of red ink; and, 3) determined to call out Republicans for allowing themselves to become a wholly-owned subsidiary of K Street, the lobbyists' corridor.
Although the Iraq War remains a major hurdle, there may be ways around it. Some Democrats suggest that a Republican presidential candidate might benefit from matching the Democratic game plan with a few twists: Declare that Bush has lost the war through bad planning, inadequate resources and the imposition of political decisions on the military.
Along these lines, McCain could argue that Bush not only failed to win a winnable war, but that conditions in Iraq are so terrible that withdrawal is now the only reasonable alternative; that resources and taxpayer dollars should be put into Afghanistan and into supporting anti-terrorist activities in Pakistan, Africa and South Asia - not to mention an infusion of cash into domestic security.
The political risk of the stink-bomb approach is that it would alienate a certain percentage of loyal Republican primary voters, perhaps so many that victory would be impossible. Conversely, there is currently substantial agreement that the Republican loyalist electorate is very likely to be split between three candidates - Thompson, Giuliani and Romney - reducing the percentage that McCain would initially have to achieve make it into the second stage of the race, when just two candidates are likely to be left standing.
The return of McCain in his rebellious persona would legitimate a repeat of his 2000 decision to abandon the Iowa caucuses as special interest events. This would permit him to concentrate on states with "open" primaries that allow independent and Democratic voters to participate in Republican contests.
In 2000, McCain did far better with independent and Democratic voters who "crossed over" to cast Republican primary ballots. Such voters were crucial, for example, to his victory in Michigan. McCain did far less well in states with "closed" (restricted to Republicans) primaries and caucuses.
New Hampshire, where McCain crushed Bush in 2000, is an ideal "open" primary, and a victory there would be critical for McCain to step back into the first tier, strategists noted.
In addition, such early states as Michigan, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, South Carolina and North Dakota have McCain-favorable open primaries. Conversely, some major states with early primaries are closed, including California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, Colorado and New Jersey.
Just about everyone putting money on the Republican primary nomination considers McCain washed up. At Intrade, where investors put up real money, Giuliani is in first place among Republicans, going for 38 cents on the dollar; Thompson is second at 32.5 cents; Romney is third at 16 cents, and McCain fourth, at 4 cents.
McCain has little to lose. If a long-shot gamble on an anti-Bush, anti-GOP strategy were to work and give him the nomination, it would place McCain in an ideal position in the general election, where polls show a decisive anti-Bush-anti-GOP majority ready to be cultivated.