Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign is showing signs of unraveling, with a continuing slide in the polls, voters' irritation over his support of what they called amnesty for illegal aliens and his decision to pull out of the Iowa straw poll.
Party fundraisers say potential McCain donors are hanging back while Republican voters register rage over the Arizona senator's backing of the immigration reform bill, which was sidetracked in the Senate last week.
The fundraisers say the party's base remains annoyed with Mr. McCain's refusal to say the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law was a mistake that hurt free speech and helped wealthy Democratic donors and that his initial opposition to President Bush's tax cuts was meant to endear him to independents and Democrats.
"McCain increasingly is having trouble getting support from conservatives in his party," said Gary Kirk, a Republican fundraiser. "Even in his own state of Arizona, 60 percent of the people oppose the amnesty for illegal aliens that he favors. He has undercut his own party and the White House on tax cuts, campaign finance and other issues."
Chuck Laudner, the executive director of Iowa's Republican Party, said Mr. McCain's support of the immigration bill "killed him in Iowa."
"That's why he pulled out of the [Aug. 11 Iowa] straw poll — that and he can't raise the money," Mr. Laudner said.
Mr. McCain announced June 6 that he would not participate in the straw poll but said he intended to compete in the state's leadoff caucuses in the Republican presidential nomination process.
"I believe the wheels are beginning to come off the McCain campaign," said the chairman of a state Republican Party in the mid-Atlantic, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "At a state chairmen's meeting in South Carolina recently, the overwhelming view was that the charisma was gone, the sizzle was gone from McCain — maybe not for good. Maybe he could revive. But the excitement is not there."
Mr. McCain's actions yesterday may illustrate why that excitement is not there.
During a campaign stop in San Francisco, he defended what critics call the amnesty portion of the immigration bill.
"If you call anything short of rounding up 12 million people and deporting them amnesty, then OK," Mr. McCain said. "But this proposal in my view in no way meets the definition of amnesty."
Pollster Scott Rasmussen yesterday called Mr. McCain's plunge in support "startling."
"The man once considered the dominant front-runner in the race is now supported by just 11 percent of likely Republican primary voters nationwide," Mr. Rasmussen said yesterday. "That's down from 17 percent in May and 14 percent a week ago. His support is just half of what it was in January."
Although Mr. McCain falls flat on a number of bedrock conservative issues, the Republican base does support his advocacy for a strong military and his stance against unnecessary federal spending.
A Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll, released yesterday, reports Mr. McCain with only 12 percent support among Republicans — less than half the 27 percent support enjoyed by former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who only recently said he is "testing the waters" for a presidential run, has 21 percent support. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is fourth at 10 percent.
The L.A. Times poll starkly illustrates the extent to which Republican voters hold against Mr. McCain a number of perceived transgressions.
Asked whom they would not vote for under any circumstances, 22 percent of Republican voters said Mr. McCain — almost twice as many as those who said Mr. Giuliani, the second most-frequently mentioned candidate. He was followed by 9 percent who said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and 8 percent who said Mr. Romney.
Some said it's still too early to declare Mr. McCain's second run for president a one-way road to failure.
"Much too soon to conclude anything like that," pollster John Zogby said. "His money is low, his numbers are anemic, his stance on the war is out of the mainstream, and he got hurt with conservatives on immigration, but he is still John McCain, a war hero, a maverick and a man with a story to tell."