Seven years ago, as reporters rode around this first primary state on McCain's campaign bus, chatting up the candidate for hours on end, a romance was born.
"Journalists go weak in the knees around the guy," wrote Slate's Jacob Weisberg, who admitted joining the swoon. "McCain is easier to get access to than a Hong Kong hooker," a Time cover story announced. Ari Fleischer, the spokesman for candidate George W. Bush, complained that "John McCain is a media darling."
But the relationship has turned decidedly chilly, with reporters denigrating the Republican's chances and liberal columnists accusing him of selling out. McCain's partisans say this is all about his unwavering support for the administration's effort in Iraq.
"The press has decided to view McCain through the prism of a war they almost unanimously oppose," says Mike Murphy, who was a key adviser in the 2000 campaign. "When McCain deviates from Republican orthodoxy, it's brave. When McCain deviates from the elite media's orthodoxy, they write that he's not brave, which is unfair. There's a bit of a negative bandwagon going on."
Alter, who professes "great personal respect" for McCain, says the key factor is not the war but McCain's shifting positions on, for instance, President Bush's tax cuts, which he opposed in 2001 but now wants to make permanent. In McCain's first White House campaign, Alter says in an interview, "the standard he set was not that of a liberal Republican, it was that of a straight talker. And suddenly he's not talking so straight."
I haven't heard Alter use this kind of scorn for those Democrats who voted for the war and now oppose it. Where was their straight-talk?
McCain made the mistake thinking that he could "New York Times" his way to victory the first time around. Now McCain has a Mafia problem and the mob is especially violent with those they prop up that show no loyalty. None of it matters though. McCain doesn't need the press but conservatives and the only chance he has to get them back is to push through legislation that repeals the McCain-Feingold law. Rush was making fun of his official candidacy announcement yesterday saying that he had no idea that McCain might run and it comes as such a surprise. 100 stories in the New York Times aren't worth a few kind words from Rush if you want to be a legitimate Republican candidate.
Had McCain's 2000 campaign stressed experience instead of personality. Had McCain not opposed the tax cuts and had not insisted on campaign finance reform these last 7 years, he would be the runaway favorite in this race. His insistence on being contrary made for great media profiles, but convinced too many conservatives that he's not to be trusted. Principle is great, but surprise isn't and who wants to be surprised by President McCain's reaction to issues not yet on the table. He's liable to do anything and Presidents define their parties. He could take this party in a very precarious direction. At least Rudy or Hilary will be predicatable.