John McCain's conservative base is showing increasing disappointment with his performance.
The Arizona senator, never the favorite of the political right, is further losing the confidence of economic and social conservatives, according to numerous interviews with conservative leaders.
"He is losing us conservatives, and Sarah Palin is not enough to keep conservatives on board," conservative fundraiser Richard Norman said.
Mr. McCain's latest misfire was in surrendering his maverick image and whatever standing he was building with conservatives by supporting the Washington-Wall Street establishment's $700 billion bailout package. Mr. McCain then compounded his problem by offering without explanation an additional plan to spend $300 billion to bail out people who had taken mortgage they couldn't afford.
"The $300 billion mortgage plan did not help McCain," said Patrick Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, which supports candidates who favor tax cuts and spending restraint. "Given the unpopularity of the last bailout, and its failure to stop the slide of the stock markets, this probably sounds like a lot of money that won't necessarily help."
"In addition, the McCain campaign did not lay the groundwork for this plan adequately," Mr. Toomey said. "It should have been announced only after the appropriate white papers were distributed and experts and surrogate speakers were prepped to sell it."
Always fuzzy to many conservatives on matters of philosophy and principle, Mr. McCain won a reprieve from the religious right when he invited Mrs. Palin to join him as his vice-presidential candidate. But the spotlight has shifted back to him.
"The base is getting discouraged again after being sky high for three to four weeks after his Palin pick," said Richard Viguerie, a leading member of the conservative movement's Old Guard. "The discouragement comes because it's hard to get excited and fight for a man who refuses to fight."
While the Wall Street meltdown was beyond his control, Mr. McCain, as conservatives sees it, still isn't battling for any particular cause or idea except that he has experience and his opponent does not.
"He is not offering a clear philosophy of less government and more freedom even though the newspapers are filled each day with lurid stories of corrupt government bureaucrats, stealing billions from the taxpayers," said Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan campaign historian. "He should have opposed the Wall Street bailout on principled grounds, opposing the corruption of [Sen. Barack] Obama's buddies: Washington and Wall Street."
Colin Hannah, president of the conservative Let Freedom Ring Lobby, said Mr. McCain is faring poorly in almost all polls in the battleground states and even in once-safe states "because he has been ham-handed in explaining the financial crisis and his proposals to address it."
Mr. Norman said Mr. McCain "has missed numerous opportunities to hang this financial crisis around the necks of the Democrats where it rightly belongs. He alludes to it but never explains it."
Mr. Norman thinks the McCain campaign somehow manages to ignore a wealth of hard evidence available to use against the Obama claim to be in the center-left mainstream.
"McCain never talks about Community Reinvestment Act funds or why Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae had to write all those subprime mortgages that destroyed an entire industry and economy," Mr. Norman said.
The candidate and his handlers seem unable to offer a summation of their case each time they approach the jury of voters.
"He finally talked about his opponent receiving more money than anyone in the Senate from Freddie and Fannie, but he still didn't tie it all together," Mr. Norman said. "Most people don't understand what is going on or why and he could explain it very simply by connecting the dots for them but he has not done that."
Conservatives find it hard to track just where McCain campaign strategists are trying to take him.
"Every time they turn around, they have a different strategy in the McCain campaign," said Mike Karem, Reagan administration former deputy assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development. "The base has come to conclude this is not the party of Ronald Reagan anymore and the McCain campaign doesn't represent the ideas and goals of Ronald Reagan."