The McCain brand: Fixed and not likely to change

Posted: Mar 06, 2007 9:41 AM
The McCain brand: Fixed and not likely to change

John McCain looked great on "Letterman" Wednesday night, as relaxed and charming as any politician can be when they are on their game.

McCain's charisma is an asset, but is it enough to revive his flagging presidential campaign?

In this era of media saturation, it is very difficult to rebrand a known quantity. It is as tough for Ford and Chrysler as it is for Britney Spears to be different from that which they have become in the public's collective mind.

The same is true of Sen. McCain. He has a blazing personality, but that's only part of the brand. The other parts? McCain-Feingold, the Gang of 14, McCain-Kennedy, Lindsey Graham.

I discuss the McCain brand at length in my new book, "A Mormon in the White House?" and conclude that while Sen. McCain is a great American, he's been a lousy senator and a terrible Republican. That's the brand.

Lots of products have mixed brands. I think of the Jaguar of the '70s — beautiful to watch, wonderful to drive, a nightmare to own. In politics, there's Bill Clinton, a gift to journalists in search of copy.

The McCain brand can't be saved by charm. Mayor Giuliani and Gov. Romney are both relatively new to most Americans, and they are both gifted with as much or more of the kind of energy that John McCain threw off in 2000. The rest of the GOP field simply doesn't have that energy, and the money totals will underscore that fact when the first numbers are published at month's end.

Pastor Phil is a friend of mine with whom I have an annual lunch when he vacations in California. His church is in Iowa, and earlier this year he accepted an invitation to meet Mitt Romney. He's never been one of the "I can't vote for a Mormon" evangelicals, but he is very pro-life and very serious about politics and government.

He was deeply impressed by Romney, and especially by his energy and intelligence. Serious people know just how extraordinarily difficult the world has become and will remain for America. To read even a little about our enemies is to be alarmed. To read deeply is to be certain that the next president must be both a skilled executive, a gifted communicator, and crucially, an optimist in Reagan's mold.

The mayor and the governor both have these skill sets, but McCain no longer conveys that last crucial aspect. His charm and charisma is of a different sort, and it doesn't appear to be the sort the Republican primary voters want.

ABC's poll found that McCain's strength among Republicans dropped from 26 percent to 21 percent over two months while Giuliani's surged by 10 percentage points, from 24 percent to 34 percent.

Romney started at 5 percent in December, climbed to 9 percent in January and fell back to 4 percent in February — proof of the power of bad press to reverse momentum, but also no death knell as the campaign's success in fundraising and endorsements continues.

What these numbers tell us is that the known brand — McCain — is being abandoned in favor of another semiknown brand, Giuliani. Whether Giuliani can hold that affection as the press turns next to him as it did to Romney (the Politico got started today with a blast at Giuliani's judicial appointments certain to be distributed far and wide by anti-Rudy forces) remains to be seen. But is difficult to see how McCain can repair his standing with Republican primary voters.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Clinton has the same problem as Sen. McCain: Everybody has a fixed opinion about her (and her husband.)

David Geffen's lacerating attack on her integrity was just the first of many reminders of the Clinton White House years in which she was a figure of importance second only to her husband.

Unlike the Republicans, though, there is no serious candidate to challenge her yet. I do not see the country in a time of war turning to a Chicago machine pol with three unremarkable years in the Senate as his claim on the White House.

If anything, John Edwards has even less of the experience needed for the job. Hillary is the formidable favorite because as fixed as her brand is, she cannot be said to be anything other than utterly serious about her intentions and experienced in a way that only proximity to the presidency can provide.