Chomping at the Bit

By Kurtz, Howard | Newsweek, August 6, 2012 | Go to article overview

Chomping at the Bit


Kurtz, Howard, Newsweek


Byline: Howard Kurtz

John McCain is dying to help Romney. But is his advice wanted?

When Mitt Romney declared, during a Republican primary debate in Tampa, that he would pressure illegal immigrants to "self-deport" back to their home countries, John McCain was downright disturbed. Worried that his former rival was grievously wounding himself with Hispanic voters, the Arizona senator staged an intervention. He and fellow senator Lindsey Graham placed a joint call to Romney in January, urging him to tone down his rhetoric. Romney listened politely, sources say, and did not use the phrase again.

It was a rare instance of Romney taking counsel from the man who beat him in the last campaign--and who has been relegated to a behind-the-scenes role in this one. Four years after his own presidential bid, McCain's luster as a Republican Party spokesman appears to have dimmed: a number of proposed campaign trips on Romney's behalf have quietly evaporated, and there has been no offer of a speaking slot at the GOP convention. "He's chomping at the bit to do something," a McCain aide confides.

Romney, to be sure, has been willing to use McCain when it suits him. The candidate's strategists have asked him to do fundraising events in places like Annapolis, Md., and Pensacola, Fla., where he is popular among military families. But such events take place far from the television cameras. "If you're the Republican nominee, the campaign is about the future," says Steve Schmidt, who oversaw McCain's 2008 effort. "John McCain is very much a figure of the immediate past."

Right after losing to Barack Obama in 2008, McCain went to Tahiti, where he would hang around the hotel desk waiting for a one-page sheet of news to come in. "I almost went crazy," he recalls. "You're all geared up. You can't come to a full stop."

Having once delighted in working with Democrats, McCain might have emerged as a dealmaker during the Obama era. But there were two problems. First, McCain had to embrace a harder-edged conservatism to survive a primary challenge in Arizona. "He understood the party was in rebellion and he'd have to move substantially to the right," says a former lieutenant.

The other glitch was his strikingly antagonistic relationship with Obama. Despite a fence-mending meeting at the White House last year, the president never called again. McCain contrasts Obama's aloof approach to lawmakers with that of Bill Clinton, who "was remarkably good to me." In fact, McCain told me that he and Clinton chatted about policy in occasional phone calls during his 2008 campaign, even as the former president was backing Obama.

As for McCain's relationship with Romney, it seems to have improved--somewhat--since 2008. The wounds sustained during their primary battle had been unusually deep and personal: When Romney charged him with promoting amnesty for illegal immigrants, McCain accused his rival of "desperate, flailing, and false attacks." And at one point, Romney ripped McCain for "Nixon-era" tactics. But once the battle ended, says McCain, "nobody helped me more than Mitt Romney." The vanquished candidate visited McCain's retreat in Sedona "and we became friends. I wouldn't say close friends. Why look back in anger? It's not healthy for you mentally."

The Romney camp has made similarly conciliatory noises. Stuart Stevens, Romney's top strategist, told me that McCain is "a tremendous asset." But if that's the case, why has he been so underutilized on the campaign trail?

One reason may be McCain's tendency to commit candor. The senator caused a stir when he recently told reporters that his decision to bypass Romney as the VP pick in 2008 had nothing to do with his tax returns; it was, he said, that "Sarah Palin was the better candidate." (McCain told me that he didn't mean the remark as a dig at Romney--and added that complaining about out-of-context headlines "is just stupid and a waste of time.

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