Journalists spent months explaining how Sen. John McCain's stalwart support of the Iraq War would sink him in the Republican presidential primaries -- and it didn't. Then, they swooned over McCain's performance in a New Hampshire debate where he vigorously defended the Senate immigration bill -- and his numbers have been falling ever since.
The journalistic interpretations of McCain always lack the crucial context of how living, breathing Republicans -- you know, those people you can't find in many newsrooms -- might be reacting to him. And sometimes it seems that the McCain campaign lacks that context as well. In two presidential campaigns now, McCain has proven himself adept at what is becoming his signature maneuver: the suicidal assault directly into the teeth of key Republican interest groups and beliefs.
In 2000, McCain could have scored a monumental upset over then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush if he had gotten to his right on a few issues -- in other words, if he had done more to appeal to Republican voters. Instead, McCain famously alighted to Virginia Beach, Va., to denounce leaders of the Christian right as "agents of intolerance," dooming his already-diminished chances of winning the nomination and doing himself lasting damage with conservatives.
This year, McCain's kamikaze charge is on comprehensive immigration legislation that couples an amnesty for illegal aliens with border-enforcement measures. You have to have only a passing acquaintance with a Republican voter or two to know this is deeply unpopular in the GOP.
Rudy Giuliani practically declared New York a sanctuary city for illegals when he was mayor, but now tough border enforcement is the second of his "12 commitments." Support for an amnesty used to be a hallmark of Sen. Sam Brownback's self-styled Christian statesmanship, but he dumped it soon after he started running for president. And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney flip-flopped from pro- to anti-amnesty.
McCain himself wobbled. He seemed ready to jump from his support for a comprehensive bill, but when the Senate cut a deal a month ago, he traveled back to Washington for the press conference. In the face of a firestorm against the bill, he gave a speech in Miami defending it. When the bill seemed to die in the Senate -- giving his campaign a reprieve by potentially dampening the issue -- McCain worked to revive it.