McCain Set to Make White House Run Official

It might seem he has been running for some time, but Wednesday, Sen. John McCain of Arizona officially announces his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Republican political consultant Mike Murphy talks about McCain's prospects.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of scene from "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart")

Mr. JON STEWART (Host, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart"): Are you running for president?

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Yes.

Mr. STEWART: You are.

INSKEEP: Senator John McCain makes the formal announcement today. He appeared last night on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," and he claimed to bring a souvenir from his recent much publicized tour of a Baghdad market.

(Soundbite of scene from "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart")

Sen. MCCAIN: I had something really picked up for you too. It's a nice…

Mr. STEWART: This, really?

Sen. MCCAIN: Yes, it's a nice little IED to put on to your desk.

Mr. STEWART: It's very lovely of you. Thank you.

INSKEEP: McCain supports President Bush's strategy in Iraq - a view that overshadows his campaign and overshadowed this interview.

(Soundbite of scene from "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart")

Mr. STEWART: How do you quell a civil war when it's not your country?

Sen. MCCAIN: I'm saying that we're paying a very heavy price.

(Soundbite of audience applauding)

Mr. STEWART: They - they come and…

Sen. MCCAIN: I know.

Mr. STEWART: And the thing is…

Sen. MCCAIN: I think I know…

Mr. STEWART: The tickets - the tickets are free.

Sen. MCCAIN: I think I know…

(Soundbite of audience laughing)

Sen. MCCAIN: I think I know whose side they're on.

Mr. STEWART: No, they're on America's side (unintelligible).

Sen. MCCAIN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of audience applauding)

INSKEEP: John McCain was once seen as a frontrunner. He now trails other candidates in polls and money. To understand what happens next, we called Mike Murphy, who ran McCain's 2000 presidential campaign.

Mr. MIKE MURPHY (Republican Political Consultant): I think the least important thing now, are polls, and I think the advice I give everybody is don't really believe any polls - national polls - until after the Iowa caucus - because people aren't paying attention now so the polls move around like leaves in the wind. They're just not that indicative.

I think, what John McCain has to do is punch through with a message of change. It's a change election. Either a changed Democrat or changed Republican, I think he's going to be the strongest candidate. And I think now that John's actually going to announce and get out there in the full campaign mode, the burden on him is to, kind of, give the press a comeback narrative by sharpening his message and positioning himself - where he's really all has been his career, which is a guy who wants to change the way things are done in Washington.

INSKEEP: How did it happen that he got positioned at least among those people who are paying attention this early, got positioned as the same old thing warmed over?

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah, that's a good point. It's a great case study. I'd say three factors, kind of, drove it. One is it's so early that the process is driven by, kind of, elite media conventional wisdom rather than the voters. They don't turn in to drive the reality, the process until later. Second, the media loved John McCain when he stood up and was feisty against the conventional wisdom of the Republican Party. But when he stands up and fights for a war that a lot of the media elite doesn't like, all of a sudden he's no longer courageous. I think that tells me more about the media than about John McCain.

INSKEEP: Let me stop you there for just a second. We'll get to your final point. But he is strongly supporting not just the war in Iraq but the way that President Bush is pursuing it right now, and that's something that is unpopular way beyond media circles.

Mr. MURPHY: Yeah, but not particularly in the Republican primary world. Well, I think it's, kind of, overshadowed the coverage and what counts for McCain now, which is Republican delegates. And while I agree of you that he does support the measures President Bush is taking, he's also been a critic of the incompetence of the war, longer than just about anybody. But I think he's kind of getting boxed into the corner of being as - portrayed as a single-note supporter of war that's have a lot of failures, which I think loses some context.

The final point I'd make about it - and it's he most, kind of, insight political one - is the early McCain strategy was to become the traditional frontrunner, the guy with the most money, the most endorsements, the most everything. And I'm not sure that campaign really fit John McCain. He's not a frontrunner kind of guy. Rudy Giuliani, based on name ID and popularity; Mitt Romney based on fund raising and early state organization - have both broken through, so there's no frontrunner now. But I think it could be an opportunity for McCain now to be what he's best at, the scrappy, come-from-behind guy. I think that's easier campaign forum. And I think if he finds himself in those roots, he may have a comeback.

INSKEEP: Does John McCain like doing all the things that you have to do to run for president?

Mr. MURPHY: He doesn't particularly like beating contributors out of money. And I think that's one reason he has some trouble. In some ways, I think, that's a complement to him. But the reality of running for president is you got to be good at raising money because money buys speech, advertising, message. And McCain's a fighter. And so, he likes finding a bully or somebody who's wrong and abusive about it and fighting him, whether it's political or from a policy basis.

And that's why, I think, being a little behind in the polls now and not being kind of the cruising frontrunner, you know, man-in-the-gray-suit organizational candidate - I think this new situation, while at first glance it looks rougher for him, is better trained for the real McCain to do what he does well - which is going to connect with people and take the sharp side of issues that people may not agree with him on, but he earns some respect for telling the truth. And we'll see if he can rekindle that now in the next 90 to 180 days as the campaign heats up this year and increases position.

INSKEEP: Mike Murphy, good talking with you.

Mr. MURPHY: Thank you. Great to be here.

INSKEEP: He's a Republican political consultant who once ran a campaign for John McCain in 2000, and he's a regular commentator for NPR News.

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