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The McCain Implosion Fallout

By John McIntyre

John McCain's second campaign for president has been in a slow free-fall for all of 2007. This week's dramatic purge of his campaign manager, chief strategist and estrangement of long-time confidant and chief of staff has simply put an exclamation point on the six-month collapse. While Senator McCain was never the clear frontrunner that many in the Washington establishment presumed him to be, he was well positioned at the beginning of the year to have a good shot at capturing the GOP nomination.

What went wrong?

The McCain camp made several major miscalculations, most emanating from the disease of being far too entrenched inside the conventional wisdom of the Washington beltway. First was the dismissal initially of Rudy Giuliani as a real threat to the nomination and the impact that the front-running Giuliani was going to have on the rationale for the McCain bid among Republican voters. Second was the wisdom of continuing to run a campaign as the establishment, next-in-line nominee. That strategy made some sense coming on the heels of President Bush's reelection, but as the President's fortunes soured punctuated by the GOP debacle in 2006, there was no reexamination among the McCain brain trust of running a status quo, "we're-the-next-guy-in-line" campaign in a political environment where the desire for change was large and growing. Third was an utter lack of understanding for the level of antithapy that many conservatives (outside of Washington) felt towards the maverick Senator and thus the critical need for the campaign to find an issue - other than the war - where McCain could energize Republicans.

The campaign appears to have just plodded along the first six months of the year oblivious to these major miscalculations until the poor fundraising numbers collided with the sizable spending fashioned along the lines of the Bush 2000 campaign. Reality hit this week, and in many ways it is the first piece of good news the McCain campaign has had in months. Because without some kind of change, McCain's campaign was going nowhere. The unanswered question and the real issue remains whether the McCain campaign can adapt or whether the candidate himself is the problem.

Where does this leave the Republican contest?

After three debates and with Giuliani continuing to lead in the national polls as well as 2nd quarter fundraising it is a little silly to suggest Rudy can't win the Republican nomination. Giuliani's entry into the race in many ways was the catalyst for the collapse of the McCain campaign. John McCain's central appeal to Republicans was his attractiveness to Independents and his perceived ability to win a general election in a year where the GOP knows they will be at a huge disadvantage. Giuliani appears to have won that battle among the Republican electorate and he is poised to benefit the most from the McCain campaign's fall to second tier status.

It has been the inability of the McCain and Romney campaigns to gain traction, coupled with the strength of Giuliani, that has opened the door for Fred Thompson. Romney's strategy always called for him to neutralize McCain as a serious candidate, with the theory that in a Romney vs. Giuliani race Rudy's lack of social conservative bona fides would ultimately sink his campaign. The Romney plan was to string together early wins in Iowa and neighboring New Hampshire and then - with McCain a non-factor and with Romney's ability to draw from his massive personal fortune - present himself as the sole conservative option to Giuliani.

It is an understatement to say that Fred Thompson severely complicates this game plan.

Ironically, a year ago with Giuliani dismissed as un-nominatable and Thompson filming Law & Order, both the McCain and Romney campaigns probably viewed the other as their chief obstacle to the nomination. While Romney does lead in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, it is hard to see how he becomes the overwhelming "conservative option" in a narrowed field that includes the southerner Thompson.

Just like Giuliani was the key to McCain's demise, Thompson may be what sinks the Romney campaign. This would effectively leave a two-person race between the New Yorker and the Tennessean, with Romney perhaps siphoning just enough conservative votes that allows the pro-choice, thrice married Rudy Giuliani the pathway to the GOP nomination.

John McIntyre is the co-founder & President of RealClearPolitics. Email: john@realclearpolitics.com

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