INDIANAPOLIS – Three weeks before the election, Republicans are growing increasingly concerned about John McCain’s ability to mount a comeback, questioning his tactics and even his campaign’s main thrust in a White House race increasingly focused on economic turmoil.
“He has to make the case that he’s different than Bush and better than Obama on the economy,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of more than a dozen prominent Republicans who in interviews during the past week expressed concern over the course of McCain’s bid. “If he doesn’t win that case, it’s all over, and it’s going to be a very bad year for Republicans.”
Several Republicans, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering McCain, said the campaign should have sought to plant doubts about Obama’s associations with 1960s-era radical William Ayers and others months ago. Doing so now, they said, makes the 72-year-old McCain come off as angry, grouchy and desperate.
Rather, these Republicans said, McCain needs to strike a balance in his tone – appearing presidential while also questioning Obama’s readiness to serve and judgment to lead. And several said McCain should close the campaign on an honorable note.
“He doesn’t need an attack strategy, he needs a comeback strategy,” said Alex Castellanos, a longtime national GOP media consultant who worked for Mitt Romney in the primaries.
The unsolicited advice comes as McCain campaign officials become increasingly discouraged. From junior aides to top advisers, the frustration is palpable. Some argue the media isn’t giving McCain a fair shake and are weary of the increasingly problematic environment working against the GOP. Tensions have grown over how hard to go after Obama amid concerns about irreparably damaging McCain’s straight-shooter reputation.
And the candidate himself, the target of a negative whisper campaign in the 2000 GOP primary, appears conflicted on the campaign trail. He’s cheery and smiling during question-and-answer sessions with crowds but becomes visibly annoyed – even surly – when he reads aloud scripted attacks on Obama and Democrats.
Despite polls showing Obama with a lead nationally and challenging for states long in the Republican column, no Republican interviewed said the race was lost. They said McCain can prevail if he presents himself as the optimistic visionary the public wants in deeply worrisome economic times.
“He needs to come forward with a serious new plan and announce it in a serious manner,” said Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign. “McCain cannot outdo Obama in just expressing outrage over Wall Street greed.”
The candidates meet Wednesday in their third and final debate; it’s McCain’s best chance to make a lasting impression.
“He has an opportunity to step up and be a forceful leader during these challenging times,” said Ron Kaufman, a veteran party operative who also worked for Romney. “McCain got the nomination because that’s what his brand is, but somehow it’s gotten muddled.”
Senior advisers insist McCain is trying to be such a leader. They note that his daily speeches are devoted heavily to the economy, including taxes and health care, and that he’s been rolling out a series of prescriptions. They complain McCain’s not getting credit for those and argue that the media holds McCain to a higher standard than Obama, who they contend is getting a free pass.
Over the past week, McCain also has been assailing Obama’s character in speeches and TV ads. They include one that, with little proof, accuses Obama of lying about his association with Ayers and assails Democrats as irresponsible liberals on the economy.
Some Republicans want McCain to keep it up, though strike a balance.
Michael Steele, the former Maryland lieutenant governor and chairman of the candidate-recruiting organization GOPAC, said McCain must reassure people with a “clear and concise” economic message but also needs to “smack the other guy around a little bit.”
Ohio GOP chief Bob Bennett said the campaign must do more to “close the sale” on what McCain would do as president. But he also said: “I think he needs to get tougher.”
Others say the only thing McCain can do is hope Obama makes a huge mistake or an outside event changes the race.
“Winning the campaign is totally out of McCain’s hands,” said Matthew Dowd, President Bush’s senior political strategist in 2004, who now shuns the party label.