Unlike in his last presidential campaign, McCain started out as the GOP's establishment candidate, running in a party that usually nominates the establishment candidate. He made peace with his old rival, George W. Bush, just as the president's ship was starting to go down. His alliance with Bush on immigration was costly. In a conference call with reporters, the McCain campaign last week acknowledged that the immigration battle hurt its ability to raise money. "We certainly wouldn't be straight with you if we told you it didn't have an impact," campaign strategist John Weaver said. He resigned from the campaign on July 10 along with campaign manager Terry Nelson.
McCain is trying to reposition himself to run as he did in 2000, when he was the anti-establishment candidate. "John McCain is the Republican change candidate in a change election cycle," Weaver told reporters last week. But unlike in 2000, a Republican is in the White House. Can a Republican successfully run as the candidate of change this time? McCain's strategists say they think so. They talk about a "liberated" John McCain, liberated from Washington politics. "We let spending get out of control. We presided over the largest increase in the size of government since the Great Depression," the senator from Arizona admonished his party at last month's New Hampshire debate.
One reason McCain's new strategy might work is that the Republican establishment doesn't really have a candidate to rally around. Conservatives have problems with both Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. And Fred Thompson's conservative credentials are already under challenge.
But McCain's problems aren't small. Democrats are angry with him because of his support for the war in Iraq. Republicans are angry with him because of his stand on immigration.
Meanwhile, the second-quarter fundraising figures reveal an amazing level of voter involvement in the 2008 contest, compared with the past three presidential elections. In the second quarter of 1995, candidates raised a combined $34.1 million. In the second quarter of 1999, they raised $55.3 million. And in the second quarter of 2003, they reached $65.9 million. In the second quarter of this year, the top six candidates alone (the three leaders in each party) pulled in $110.7 million. "This is a record-breaking amount of money, and a record-breaking cycle," noted Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "This will be like no other presidential election before."
Moreover, for the first time on record, Democratic candidates are topping Republicans in the money chase. The top three Democrats raised $68.5 million this quarter, while the top three Republicans raised $42.2 million. Rank-and-file Democrats are more energized.
In the end, both parties' nominees are likely to have all the money they need to run strong national campaigns. It's not the difference in dollars that matters most. It's the difference in motivation and involvement that the dollars reveal.