Economic Crisis, Palin May Have Cost McCain

For John McCain, this fall's financial meltdown was the final straw.

His path to the White House was always going to be rocky in a year when the Republican brand was badly tarnished. But he managed to keep the race competitive and even pulled slightly ahead — until mid-September when his standing dropped like the Dow Jones industrial average.

"In the middle of September, we're ahead," said Steve Schmidt, McCain's de facto campaign manager. "The financial collapse put us behind."

Whatever advantage the meltdown automatically gave to the Democrats, McCain's handling of the situation made it worse. When a financial bailout bill was in trouble six weeks ago, McCain abruptly called a news conference and took a gamble.

"I'll suspend my campaign and return to Washington," McCain announced on Sept. 24. "We must meet as Americans, not as Democrats or Republicans, and we must meet until this crisis is resolved."

It was a grand gesture, meant to showcase McCain's selfless leadership. But once he got to Washington, it became clear that McCain had no real plan to fix the bailout package, and no real pull with House Republicans to get it passed. Instead of looking presidential and reassuring, McCain looked desperate and alarming, a stark contrast to Barack Obama.

Having raised the stakes, McCain lost the bet.

Fighting Terrorism

Even before that crisis hit, McCain was challenged by Americans' deepening concern over their pocketbooks. For much of the past two years, McCain said he was running for president because he wanted to combat Islamist terrorism.

"Any president who does not regard this threat as transcending all others does not deserve to sit in the White House," McCain told the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles in March.

Once the economy transcended terrorism in voters' minds, McCain found himself far less prepared. His faith in tax cuts as the lone engine of job creation sounded much like the Bush playbook of the past eight years. He also seemed torn by a split personality: a Ronald Reagan advocate for limited government one day, a populist, Teddy Roosevelt-style activist the next. No one could doubt his fighting spirit. But neither did anyone know where his next punch might land.

Picking Palin

If suspending his campaign was one big roll of the dice, McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate was even bigger.

"She's not from these parts, and she's not from Washington," McCain told supporters as he introduced Palin in September. "But when you get to know her, you're going to be as impressed as I am."

When they got to know Palin, millions of Americans were impressed — especially social conservatives who adopted her as their champion. But others got the impression she was not ready. That undermined McCain's criticism that Obama lacked experience. And it called into question his promise to put country ahead of political calculation.

Tuesday night, McCain called Palin "an impressive new voice" in the Republican Party and said he would leave any second-guessing about his campaign to others.

"Every candidate makes mistakes, and I'm sure I made my share of them. But I won't spend a moment regretting what might have been," McCain said during his concession speech.

McCain has long thought of himself as lucky. He has survived plane crashes, fire at sea and years in a POW camp. His political career was also blessed with good timing and fortunate political matchups.

But his political fortunes could not survive the Democratic tidal wave that washed over the country this year. McCain often said he was running to inspire a generation of young people to serve a cause greater than their own self-interest. This year, many Americans were ready for such inspiration. But more found it in McCain's opponent.

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