Two presidential aspirants finished last month with the same amount of cash on hand, a bit more than $5 million. One was a Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. The other was a Democrat, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.
But these two candidates from neighboring Southwestern states are headed in very different directions. McCain is on his way down, Richardson, on his way up.
This is partly an expectations game. McCain was long considered the Republican frontrunner, so when he trailed both Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney in the fund-raising sweepstakes, the whiff of disappointment was unmistakable. McCain only aggravated the anxiety surrounding his campaign by firing staffers and re-organizing his finance team.
Richardson, on the other hand, has long been relegated to second-tier status, so his money numbers marked a surprising success. And then, in an unscientific but widely noticed straw poll, conducted by the grassroots organization MoveOn.org, Richardson finished second to John Edwards.
If candidates were investments, the smart money would be saying: sell McCain, buy Richardson.
One of McCain’s problems is obvious: on the most important issue facing the country, the Iraq war, he is badly out of step with public opinion. In the latest Washington Post/ABC poll, only 35 percent favor the president’s decision to send more troops into battle while 65 percent oppose him. Yet McCain remains Bush’s loudest and strongest supporter.
But McCain has an even bigger problem: he’s squandering his prime political asset, his reputation for candor and integrity. In a monumental blunder, the senator strolled through a Baghdad market – wearing body armor and guarded by hundreds of troops – and announced that the surge was working and calm was spreading.
He could have been wearing a flight suit and landing on a carrier and proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.”
This is the same guy who’s now cozying up to the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the right-wing preachers he denounced six years ago as “agents of intolerance.” He was right the first time. The Straight Talk Express is as badly damaged as Jon Corzine’s Suburban, which veered into a guardrail and sent the New Jersey governor into intensive care. Like Corzine, McCain was not wearing a seat belt when he crashed.
Finally, McCain seems to have lost his zest for battle. His speech at VMI, defending his war policy, sounded weary and worn out. The words were undoubtedly sincere, but the delivery had no spark, no sizzle.