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.]

ES: Huckabee?

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.” And I said, “By the way, I have very profound feelings myself about Pat Tillman. I thought it was an example of sacrifice and humility when he joined [the Army] and a tragedy when he was killed. It had such an impact on me that I wanted to remember him every day, so I got a tattoo of his [jersey] number, which was 40, on my arm.” So McCain said, “Bullshit, let me see it.” I took off my coat and rolled up my sleeve to show it to him, and he grabbed me by the shoulders and kind of teared up and hugged me and said, “I knew there was a reason I liked you.”

ES: Did you have any idea, then or afterward, that you would get involved in McCain’s campaign?

MM: I had absolutely zero interest in being involved. I didn’t have the time or the inclination or, frankly, the fresh legs. I told them, “You guys need some young talent, and I’d be glad to help you put that team together, because I’m familiar with all the players. And I’ll find somebody else to do the day-to-day management, because I just can’t do it.” So that was the plan. We brought in all these gunslingers. And then we had the meltdown, and they all quit. The interns and I were left to do the ads. It was not what I intended.

ES: How much time are you spending on McCain these days?

MM: It’s at least 50 percent of my brainpower and bandwidth. My hope is that if he wins the nomination, you know, I’ll help take the beach, but I’ll turn it over to someone else to do the land war.

ES: What have you been doing for him?

MM: I’ve been producing the ads with the leanest team ever. I go to all the debates and help with the prep. And there are three senior people on the campaign who they like to have travel with McCain—at least one of us at all times.

ES: Give me some fabled McCain-style straight talk. What is his biggest challenge or weakness as we run up to the Texas primary, with the battle for the nomination still relatively wide open?

MM: The big challenge is Romney’s money. He has the ability to write a check. And he’s been writing checks.

ES: I expected you to say that it was Rush Limbaugh and Tom DeLay and James Dobson—the archconservatives who’ve said they’d sooner stay home than support McCain.

MM: That’s been happening all along, and it hasn’t hurt us so far. It’s all about 2000, about not forgiving John for perceived sins of long ago. The thing that’s frustrating is, he’d stack up against someone like Giuliani or Romney. He has a more conservative record.

ES: Certainly on social issues.

MM: Yeah. You know, the reason he has these problems is that he stood up on tough issues like immigration, campaign finance reform, the Gang of 14 [judicial confirmation] stuff. It actually worked! But it affected the party people, and they’re the vocal ones. That’s the problem.

ES: The assumption has always been, Mark, that the evangelical wing of the party is crucial. If you don’t have that wing supporting you, you can’t win.

MM: Oh, they’ll be with McCain in a heartbeat in the general election. It’ll take about 24 hours. If it’s McCain versus Hillary Clinton, they’ll back him enthusiastically.

ES: Even someone like DeLay, who said that electing McCain would be the worst mistake that the Republicans could ever make?

MM: I think Tom DeLay has very little influence.

ES: You assume that Senator Clinton is going to be the nominee?

MM: It looks probable at this point. It was a really dramatic comeback in New Hampshire, and there are some dynamics that put her in the driver’s seat. But like I’ve always said, I think [Barack] Obama would be a much better general election candidate for Democrats.

ES: Because?

MM: This is a change environment, and there’s nobody who represents change more than Obama. And hope. And I think he has a strong character and authenticity. And he doesn’t have the baggage of Hillary Clinton.

ES: If this is a change election, tell me how a 71-year-old man whose real achievement from a foreign policy standpoint was forty years ago represents change.

MM: Because he’s the guy who advocated for the greatest change of the last four years: the change in strategy in Iraq, the most important and most significant change in American policy. He’s been the guy who put Jack Abramoff in jail. He’s the guy who’s been fighting the lobbyists and the earmarks. He’s been the reformer. So, as he says, if he can do that as senator, imagine what he can do as president.

ES: It’s one thing to be in the Senate and another thing to be in the White House. As president, he would have to contend with a largely Democratic—maybe a more Democratic—Congress. Aren’t they going to do everything they can not to cooperate with him?

MM: I think McCain’s the one guy they would cooperate with.

ES: Really?

MM: Sure. You talk to Ted Kennedy. He’d tell you, “Shit, I’d work with the guy.” McCain’s the one who’s willing to work across the aisle. He works with [Joe] Lieberman, he works with Kennedy. He is not at all partisan in terms of governing.

ES: What about the Chuck Norris argument, that McCain is too old to be president? Does the age issue concern you at all?

MM: Given the way he’s campaigned, he’s shown he can outcampaign anybody twenty years younger. He does more events than anybody. He outhustles everybody. And he has a 95-year-old mother, so he has great chromosomes.

ES: And his health is okay?

MM: His health is terrific.

ES: You had said at one point to Senator McCain—I assume you would still stick to this—that if it were he and Obama in a general election, you would stand down from working for his campaign.

MM: I intend to be a man of my word.

ES: Help me understand the differences between this campaign and previous campaigns. This is the third presidential race in a row that you will have worked on, and in those eight years a million things have changed. The media as it’s defined has changed, technology has changed, distribution platforms have changed.

MM: Let me give you some insight into about how much has changed. In 2000 the Bush campaign did not even have BlackBerrys. Al Gore did, of course, because he invented the Internet. It’s actually because he had a BlackBerry that we had a recount, because as he was going up to give his concession speech, his aide got an e-mail on a BlackBerry and said, “Hold on.”

ES: So it’s technology’s fault.

MM: Flash-forward to 2004. The biggest technological change for us was that we could compress and move video data with the punch of a button, which meant I wasn’t having to FedEx half-inch tapes across the country to wherever the president or Karl Rove might be. I remember going to hotels and finding a TV with a VCR and then finding the president or Karl or somebody. It would literally take days to get approval. Now I could do it in minutes. And we could send video to six million supporters with the punch of a button, and instantly they’d have something they could see, feel, hear. This time the impact of technology is enormous. You almost never see paper press releases anymore; you do it through video with YouTube. There are no news cycles anymore; we’re pushing a lot of what we do through the Drudge Report or the Page [Mark Halperin’s blog on Time magazine’s Web site] or countless other new-media outlets. And we do a lot of Web ads that, to be honest with you, we don’t expect a lot of people to see, but the press sees them, and they drive the story of the day.

ES: It’s not like you don’t play the mainstream media game, because, God knows, McCain has been on Meet the Press as much as anybody else. But from Jon Stewart on down, he’s also been savvy about feeding the alternative media.

MM: Very much so. It’s a strategy that’s well tailored for McCain because he’s always enjoyed fringe press. He has an open and easy way about him—there’s nothing that he won’t talk about, so Stewart and those guys love him.

ES: Do you think that’s one of the reasons that some people in the Republican party don’t like him—because he’s willing to play footsie with Jon Stewart?

MM: Yeah, sure. They don’t trust the press. They don’t like the press. They think the press is liberal. So if the press likes somebody, it means he’s not conservative enough.

ES: How much of a shadow does your old boss, the president, cast on this campaign? His name is barely mentioned in the Republican debates.

MM: You don’t really hear the Republicans criticizing him.

ES: A little bit.

MM: Barely. He’s still very popular among Republicans, so if you don’t see people going out of their way to embrace him, they’re not going out of their way to dis him either.

ES: How risky would it be to criticize the president at a time when his approval rating across the country is somewhere in the low thirties? Unless you say, “I’m running to do things differently,” aren’t you effectively running for his third term?

MM: That’s where McCain gets points—for standing up and talking about how he criticized the strategy in Iraq early on.

ES: But he also gets knocked for hugging George Bush at a time when people thought that he and Bush were very different people.

MM: Yeah, although he’s always been a guy who goes out there and campaigns for Republicans and certainly for the president of his party. But I think the real issue here is that smart candidates, even the Democrats, understand that they can’t run a campaign like John Kerry did, which was all about Bush. I mean, this is page-turning time. All that’s in the past now.

ES: How long before you yourself turn the page? Is this campaign it for you? Are you finally done in politics?

MM: Yeah.

ES: Should we take you at your word this time? I seem to remember a story you wrote for Texas Monthly in 1996 saying that you were out for good.

MM: I don’t have a very good track record on this. There’s an instinct in me that’s doglike when cars go by. But my strong preference is to just do it from the sidelines.