Evan Smith: Last summer every reporter in the world, including me, left John McCain for dead. What happened?
Mark McKinnon: Well, he wasn’t six feet under, but he was five feet under. I went into the office at that time and it was like a neutron bomb had hit. [The campaign] had gone from 140-plus staff to 22. And, you know, to be honest with you, I and others, in our wildest dreams of infinite possibilities, never thought there was a way this could happen.
ES: All the people I talked to who were supporting him would say, “Just wait. It looks bad, but just wait.”
MM: We believed that because it was a multicandidate field, nobody was likely to run away with it. That decisions would break late and fast. That people hadn’t left McCain because they didn’t like or respect him; they’d left him because they thought he was no longer viable. And it was for a lot of reasons, but primarily because of immigration. Immigration dropped him twenty points in a month, and the money dried up overnight. That’s really what did it. Some of it was Iraq, but in the Republican primaries, it was mostly immigration. So our view was, “Hang on. Hopefully there’ll be some better results from the surge, and maybe the immigration issue will fade a bit.” The Merle Haggard song “If We Make It Through December” was our theme song. Because we believed that people would look around and say, “My God, McCain’s still here, he’s viable, nobody else has taken off. And this is the guy we really liked and respected anyway, the guy we really thought ought to be president.”
ES: It had to have been hard for McCain to fall that far.
MM: It was an absolute monster gut check for the candidate. I mean, he had to fly coach and carry his own bags. He was kind of humiliated. For a lot of us, a big part of this was helping the old guy get his dignity back. It was about standing by the old soldier. I’m there for the honor of serving John McCain. I wanted to check that box in my life.
ES: It was hard enough to ask McCain to hold on. You really had to gamble that the other candidates would not be good enough to race to the front.
MM: A hundred things had to happen, and about 99 of them have. The fact that [Mike] Huckabee went to Michigan and spent money and precious days there instead of in South Carolina—
ES: Fred Thompson stays in long enough to take evangelicals away from Huckabee in South Carolina. Mitt Romney spends as much money as he did off the bat and gets very little for it.
MM: That was the first strategic imperative: Romney could not win Iowa. God bless Huckabee. At bottom, we know this is a survival contest. It beats you down. We thought we had the best survivor, the best fighter of the bunch.
ES: I want to ask you about the other candidates in the race. You not only believe in McCain, you believe the others are flawed.
MM: Oh, yeah, I think they would all probably lose in the general election.
ES: Let’s go candidate by candidate. Start with Romney.
MM: If Romney were the general election nominee, he’d be the Republican John Kerry. He’s been so utterly flexible in his positions. There’s just no sign of a backbone or principles or consistency. He would just get eaten alive. What people want, fundamentally, is authenticity and character, and I don’t think Romney reflects either one of those. [ Editors’ note: Romney dropped out of the race after this interview was conducted.]
ES: Rudy Giuliani?
MM: Too narrow. He’s all 9-11/mayor of New York, and that’s about it. Like McCain, he has a bit of crossover appeal, so I’d say he’s probably the next-best general election candidate. [ Editors’ note: Giuliani dropped out of the race after this interview was conducted.]
MM: He had to win South Carolina. Even if he had won South Carolina, he’d be a pretty-regional candidate largely driven by evangelicals. Once he got out of Iowa or South Carolina, where could he go?
ES: Of course, the reverse has been said about McCain—that once McCain gets out of states where independents can vote in the Republican primary, he’s in a tougher spot.
MM: That’s conventional wisdom and an oversimplification. McCain is winning conservatives. Not hard-core, right-wing conservatives but moderate conservatives and liberal conservatives. That’s two thirds of the pie.
ES: Once upon a time you told me the story of how you met McCain and forged your psychic bond with him. Tell it again.
MM: First of all, let me say that I always liked John McCain.
ES: Even back in 2000?
MM: Absolutely. I believed that President Bush would be the president in 2000, but I totally liked and respected McCain. I only got to know him in 2004, when he was traveling with the president. We had our bonding moment at one of the general election debates. Because it was in Arizona, McCain hosted us. We were in the greenroom waiting for the debate to begin. I noticed a television in the corner. There was a news story on about Pat Tillman—about how Jake Plummer, Tillman’s former teammate [at Arizona State and with the Arizona Cardinals], had put a sticker printed with Tillman’s number on his helmet and had gotten in a fight with the commissioner of the NFL, who said it was a violation of the uniform policy. And then it cut to video of McCain blasting the commissioner, saying that it was absurd that he hadn’t allowed Plummer to honor his friend.So I went over to McCain, and I said, “Senator, I just saw this story about Tillman, and I’m not surprised, as he was a constituent of yours, that you would be defending him like that.”