I saw this one coming a mile away. Slowly but surely, the crew that battled and outsmarted the GOP establishment to propel John McCain to the Republican presidential nomination is being shoved aside and replaced by old-hand Bush-Cheney political operatives. Oh, happy days for McCain.
It's all about money. Up until the changes in staff that put longtime Bush folks in charge, the "establishment" side of the GOP -- those who backed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for example -- have been sitting on their wallets. They've been playing coy about whether and how much they would support McCain.
Trust me. The deal has been cut. Those who danced with McCain -- those who "brung him here" -- are playing secondary roles. And that makes me all the surer that no matter how many speeches Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty gives, or how many women Florida's Gov. Charlie Crist proposes to, Mitt Romney will be McCain's running mate, whether McCain likes it nor not.
Here's the big problem that no one wants to confront: The Republican electorate didn't vote for Mitt or Rudy Giuliani or the rest of the GOP field in the primaries because they are just plain tired of the same warmed-over GOP robots. They wanted someone who could appeal to moderates and mavericks. They wanted a sharp-tongued, quick-witted, no-games-playing nominee. They wanted John McCain.
The problem for McCain was that no one in the GOP establishment, as it has been reshaped and maintained by the Bush administration, wanted McCain. He beat them at their own game.
Their retribution is to withhold their full support from him and to make him tap dance for money. Some of them have pondered whether to just let him sink beneath the waves, as a way to clear the decks for a candidate more to their liking four years from now.
They want to rein in McCain, to bring "order" to his campaign. As Dr. Evil of the "Austin Powers" comedy films would say ever so slowly, "Right."
Who among this group or Republican elites came up with the brilliant idea of sending McCain to Mexico on the Fourth of July? Is this really in the candidate's best interest?
Who has him suddenly dropping the sharp rhetorical edge he used to display so brazenly, trading in it in for a more buttoned-down approach, as if he were someone's retired uncle?
These campaign engineers want McCain's famed "Straight Talk Express" to run on time. The question is, where is it headed?
I could tell the same old crowd had taken over when our firm released a poll showing Barack Obama seriously challenging McCain in the usually reliable GOP state of Georgia. Rather than admit that this one Southern state might be a concern because of its huge African-American vote, huge voter base of young people, and its own former GOP congressman running as the Libertarian candidate, Team McCain trotted out two Georgia U.S. senators to say that McCain had a 10-point lead in the Peach State, so not to worry.
Now that makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? Rather than use the potential tightness of a race to energize your base, you instead try to convince your voters that there is no reason to put up signs, donate money or try a little harder. That's the team I've known from the past: too proud and self-satisfied to bend their strategy to take advantage of reality.
The GOP had better wake up and realize that the best thing it has going in the McCain campaign is McCain himself. Try to turn him into George W. Bush, and he will lose in a landslide. Try to "choreograph" his statements and control his personality, and it will be the inside-job political assassination of Bob Dole in 1996 all over again.
John McCain doesn't have a lot of true friends in the GOP. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is one of the few. My advice to McCain: Let Graham watch your backside. Because if the "new leadership" overseeing the McCain campaign is allowed to body-snatch the real McCain and replace him with a Republican drone, it's going to guarantee even larger Democratic House and Senate majorities next year, and a crushing defeat for McCain himself, who is a much better candidate than any of them seem to recognize.