McCain's Iowa Problem

Council Bluffs, Ia. -- As the sun set over a bucolic pastoral scene, Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Christian Alliance, introduced former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney at a benefit for the group on Monday night on the back patio of wealthy local car dealer. Scheffler, one of the most powerful conservatives in the state, was there to talk about Romney, one of several presidential candidates who will be featured at benefits for his group, but he couldn't resist also talking about the recently concluded joint forum sponsored by the Alliance and Iowans for Tax Reform in Des Moines over the weekend.

California Rep. Duncan Hunter was at that forum. So were Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, the dueling favorites of the pro-life community, as well as Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, whose anti-immigration positions have won him a local following, and former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson. Iowa poll-leader Romney, too, had put in an appearance before the packed hall of conservative stalwarts. And Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who had been excluded from the forum, thought it so important an event that he staged a thumb-in-your-eye alternative rally in a Hy-Vee Hall room next door, to which his libertarian supporters from Arkansas to Missouri flocked in rebellious good cheer to hear his attacks on our "destructive monetary system."

More notable to Scheffler, however, was who didn't attend. "Mr. Giuliani and Mr. McCain had this date on their calendar for four months," Scheffler told the 80 people who had assembled for punch and watermelon in Council Bluffs. "If they thought it was important enough, they would have taken the time to be there, that's all I'm going to say about that."

But it wasn't all he had to say -- not by a long shot. Their absence at the forum rankled, as did their decisions to not participate in the August straw poll in Ames, which can cost up to $3 million per candidate (candidates pay for each voter they bring to the poll, making the event the state's biggest G.O.P. fundraiser each election cycle). "McCain and Giuliani, they stiffed the straw poll, they stiffed our forum, and with McCain I suspect it's because of immigration," Scheffler told me after the end of the formal program.

Giuliani, who comes in second in polls of likely Iowa caucus-goers, might still be able to recover from skipping the straw poll, Scheffler said. But McCain was going to have a rougher time of it. "I know probably more social conservatives than probably anybody else in this state and I can't name one where McCain in their top choice," he said.

Such vocal sentiments in Iowa are just one of the McCain campaign's many troubles. This week, the campaign reported that it had just $2 million cash on hand, having fallen dramatically short of its fundraising goals for the year, and laid off more than half its staff nationwide. It also sliced its Iowa team in half to just eight people, according to The New York Times, even as it announced that it planned to lavish more attention on Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Just as Senator John Kerry's campaign reorganized and rocketed from obscurity to victory in Iowa, the McCain campaign is predicting a Kerry like come-back. That might be possible if McCain had Kerry-like problems in Iowa, or if the G.O.P. race had dynamics similar to ones the Democratic field had in 2003 and 2004. But McCain's troubles in Iowa go far deeper than Kerry's ever did, and make the state increasingly hostile territory for him. Here are some of the dynamics and issues in Iowa that suggest it may be too late for a McCain comeback in the state:

  • Illegal Immigration and Border Security. The McCain campaign has blamed his poor fundraising numbers on the impact of his twice-rejected legislation favoring a path to citizenship for America's illegal immigrants. He can blame much of his decline in Iowa on the same proposed law, which Republicans say single-handedly revived the dispirited conservative base -- by galvanizing it against him and the bill. "It hurt him real bad," Steve Cates, the Pottawattamie County Republican Chairman and member of the Christian Alliance, said in Council Bluffs. "It's probably my biggest issue with him. I can't support him because of his stance on immigration and I've heard a lot of that." In June Cates signed up to support Romney.
  • Choice. Asked about Scheffler's comments and those of other social conservative leaders, McCain Iowa Chairman Dave Roederer suggested I call some of the pro-life groups in the state for alternative viewpoints about McCain. Social conservatives "are not a monolithic group," he said. I called two such groups -- only to discover that McCain is no better-regarded by them than by others I'd spoken with. "I would venture to say that people who are pro-life are interested in Sam Brownback or possibly Mitt Romney," said Jean Hart of the Jefferson County Right to Life "I'm not sure where McCain stands on life. He might not be really pro-life."

    Kim Lehman, president of Iowa Right to Life, who is personally backing Brownback but whose organization does not endorse candidates in the primary, says Huckabee and Brownback are easy no-excuses candidates for pro-life voters to support, and that Romney might also be accepted, if people come to believe his new pro-life position is for real. As for McCain, his pro-life credentials are better than the pro-choice Giuliani's, but hardly impeccable. "He voted to fund embryonic stem cell research," she said. "That didn't help him." Upwards of 70 percent of Republican Iowa caucus-goers are pro-life, and the right to life groups have great sway among them.

  • Campaign Finance Reform. The other thing that didn't help McCain -- and that has hurt him with conservatives across the country -- was the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. "McCain-Feingold is really in opposition to what small groups like ours are all about," said Lehman. "McCain-Feingold interrupted the ability of people to go through the process." This has been a long-standing bone of contention between McCain and the GOP base, and the recent Supreme Court decision gutting the law has done little to soothe the long-standing resentment the legislation created among conservative groups.
  • A Diffuse Field. Kerry lost support in Iowa as Howard Dean shot into the stratosphere. But in Iowa this cycle, caucus-goers are not yet coalescing around any single Republican candidate. There is no frontrunner/challenger dynamic. Support is diffused across a ten-person field, and voters are just beginning to narrow that field in their minds to those with a realistic shot at winning the caucuses -- leaving McCain off their lists as they do so. Only four candidates have any shot at all in Iowa, Ted Sporer, the Republican Party of Iowa State Organization Chairman, explained to me: Romney, Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and Huckabee. The first three candidates ranked first, second, and third, respectively, in a recent American Research Group, Inc. poll, and Huckabee (along with Brownback) is a sentimental favorite of the pro-life crowd. Others predict that Tancredo will do surprisingly well in the caucuses, thanks to his strong stance against illegal immigration, which interviews with dozens of Iowa conservatives reveal to be one of the top two issues in the state, along with the war. McCain "has no constituency in Iowa," says Sporer. "He burned too many bridges on the way here."

Kerry's decline in Iowa was rooted in enthusiasm for a more forthright opponent and concerns about his personal appeal, but there were few such fundamental disagreements between him and Iowa party activists on the issues. The resentment over his vote to authorize the use of force against Iraq was a question he ultimately was able settle to the satisfaction of Iowa caucus-goers. McCain, in contrast, is hampered in the state by three separate areas of disagreement with the base and also by the large and diffuse field. His singular contribution to the race thus far has been to help electrify the Republican base nationwide against his position on immigration -- and against him, personally. His campaign cannot presently afford to seriously participate in the most important 2007 GOP political event on the state calendar, the Ames straw poll, even if it decided to do so.

Many have questioned the power of the Iowa caucuses over the years, but most candidates who hope to succeed without making a strong play there, such as Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, ultimately fail. McCain may just be the latest to learn that harsh lesson.