Wednesday, November 5, 2008

PHOENIX | If there is one word that has encapsulated the life and career of Sen. John McCain, it is “survivor.”

Three times as a Navy pilot, he crashed planes he was flying; three times he walked away without a scratch. Once, when sitting in his jet on the deck of the USS Forester, a rocket from another plane hit his plane, which exploded. Mr. McCain scurried through the flames; 134 other men died.

And when he ejected from his jet over Hanoi, breaking both arms and a leg, he fell into a lake but was pulled out by Vietnamese, who beat him unconscious. Given up for dead - he weighed less than 100 pounds at one point during 5 1/2 years of imprisonment in the “Hanoi Hilton” - he survived once more.

“This guy is literally unkillable,” a top aide said the night in January when the senator from Arizona pulled off a stunning upset in New Hampshire, propelling him on a path that would end with the Republican nomination for president.

But even he could not rise above what faced him this election - a toxic environment for Republicans, with an unpopular, even despised, President Bush, a late-campaign economic meltdown that favored Democrats, and a man who seemed from the outset destined to be president, the first black nominee, who also had more money to spend that any other candidate in history.

“It is highly doubtful that anyone will ever have to run in a worse political climate than the one John McCain had to run in this year,” Steve Schmidt, Mr. McCain’s top strategist, said aboard the Straight Talk Express as his boss flew back Tuesday from his final campaign rally.

“The president’s approval numbers, you know, were not helpful in the race, but the party as a whole is unpopular with the American people and that was a big albatross,” Mr. Schmidt said.

He said Mr. McCain is not to blame for the loss. “I don’t think there’s another Republican the party could have nominated that could have made this a competitive race the way that John McCain did.”

Mr. McCain had said repeatedly that whatever the outcome Tuesday, he is “the luckiest man in the world.”

The Arizona Republican, who ended each of his campaign speeches in the past two weeks with urgent orders for supporters to “Fight, fight, fight,” has charted a long political career, in which he often bucked his own party.

He has crossed Republican Party leaders on terrorism-war detainees, global warming and especially on campaign finance reform, when he joined with a Democrat to craft legislation that many Republicans saw as detrimental only to them. He even voted against President Bush’s tax cuts twice, infuriating Republican leaders.

Mr. McCain’s path to the presidential nomination began in 1999, when his “maverick” style made him the darling of much of the liberal media. The senator faced off with the leaders of his own party and its power brokers, saying the Republican Party was “defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance,” and he condemned evangelist leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Even then, though, he rose from the dead - a crushing defeat in the 2000 Iowa caucuses - to blow away Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary by 19 percentage points.

But he crashed and burned, a victim of dirty politics and innuendo during the South Carolina primary, when Bush operatives whispered that he had fathered a black baby - an apparent reference to a child he adopted from Bangladesh. Mr. McCain tells the story often, saying that night he slept like a baby: “Sleep for three hours, wake up and cry, sleep for three hours, wake up and cry.”

His defeat set him on an eight-year path to finally grab hold of the Republican nomination. He repaired his breach with evangelical leaders, who have long been the party’s kingmakers. He revised history to say that he had opposed the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts because they had not been accompanied by reductions in spending. He worked from the bottom up to win back support across the party.

But just as he was rising up again, convincing party leaders that he was one of them, the wheels came off the Straight Talk Express. The Arizonan supported Mr. Bush’s calls for a “guest-worker” program, which critics saw as a call for amnesty for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. His early and ardent support for a surge of troops into Iraq confronted polls that showed that most Americans preferred withdrawal.

Throughout the summer of 2007, his campaign went nearly broke. He walked through airports carrying his own bags to fly commercial as he campaigned for the nomination. His campaign was in shambles with overspending and discord at the top. Even his primary opponents began to speak admiringly of his courage, a sign that they thought he was a dead man walking.

But once again, he rose. The surge worked: Violence in Iraq declined, and Americans, once uniformly opposed to the war, began to see if not victory, then at least not defeat.

Ignoring the Iowa caucuses, Mr. McCain set his sights once again on New Hampshire. “I’m here so often most of you think I live here,” he joked at one of 103 town-hall meetings. He trudged through the snow in Dixville Notch, the state’s first precinct to report primary night, persuading the tiny town’s 19 voters that he was for real. (On Tuesday, however, the town voted overwhelming for his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama.)

Mr. McCain’s primary run was impressive as he took South Carolina and Florida. His campaign, now topped by some of Mr. Bush’s most competent political operatives, pivoted quickly to oppose Mr. Obama.

Mr. McCain had won a seat in Congress when Mr. Obama was still in college. The campaign targeted him as young and inexperienced, not the kind of man on whom the nation should take a chance in such a dangerous world.

But in a plot line that Shakespeare could have penned, the world conspired to defeat him: A global economic crash devalued Mr. McCain’s strengths as a military hero and boosted the party favored at times of economic distress.

“You know, it was just one … thing after another,” said Mark Salter, Mr. McCain’s speechwriter and alter ego. “I mean, the campaign starts off as the front-runner, goes bust, implodes, fights its way through New Hampshire with no resources to put into any other state; beats a well-funded primary opponent.

“… This huge celebrity gets the nomination and, you know, beats Clinton to do it. The economy is awful and, you know, Bush is deeply unpopular. Amazing.”

Mr. McCain also made his own missteps. His choice of a political neophyte as his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was initially applauded by party leaders, but was turned into a parody on “Saturday Night Live.”

The nominee also suspended his campaign to rush back to Washington to try broker a deal on an economic rescue package, which the media dismissed as craven.

“The big hole we had was … earned media coverage, and I don’t know what we could have done to do it differently,” said campaign manager Rick Davis.

“We’ll look back in two or three or four weeks and say, ‘We could have done this or that better,’” Mr. Salter said. But he added: “I think we fought our way through the most challenging environment in my lifetime. … He ought to be very proud of what he managed to do in this campaign.”

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