John McCain likes being on the wrong side of his party, almost too much. At a town-hall meeting last week in New Hampshire—the state where he emerged as an unvarnished truth-teller in 2000—the Arizona senator went bare-knuckled with voters on an issue that threatens to cripple his campaign: immigration reform. McCain is proud to be a chief cosponsor of a reform bill, now stalled, that includes a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. But most of the people he needs to back him in a GOP primary oppose it. "Do I think it's perfect?" McCain asked the crowd in New Hampshire. "No." But to do nothing, he quickly added, "is the worst of all worlds." That explanation wasn't enough for one voter, who stood and told McCain she simply couldn't support his bill. "I understand," the senator replied, a bit testily. "And when you have a better proposal, I would love to hear it."
It seems unlikely that McCain will win that woman's vote. "Doing the hard thing could cost him the election," concedes one McCain adviser, who declined to be named while discussing strategy. "But it's that kind of conviction that makes great presidents." McCain is gambling that, in the long run, a significant number of voters will come to value his willingness to stand his ground on a key issue, even if it's unpopular. Yet there's a thin line between courage and folly. How much do voters really value conviction—particularly when it runs up against their own beliefs?
History is replete with presidents who have made risky decisions for the good of the country, even if it didn't help them politically. In one of President George W. Bush's favorite historical tales of late, Harry Truman took a political hit for his policies in the early days of the cold war, and was later judged to be a farsighted and heroic leader on the issue. When Lyndon Johnson broke with his party to sign the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he feared the political repercussions. "I think we have just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time," he told a top aide. Yet history is not riddled with examples of presidential nominees who have bucked their party in big ways and gone on to win. "McCain could be the Wendell Willkie of '08," says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. Willkie, a Republican who lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, captured his party's nomination despite being more of an internationalist than many in his base. But he failed to gain his party's full support in the general election, winning just 45 percent of the overall vote.
Of course, McCain isn't the only candidate hoping Republicans will overlook controversial positions. Rudy Giuliani is staking his presidential prospects on the idea that voters will value the leadership he demonstrated on September 11 and his ability to make tough decisions more than his differences with the party on social issues like abortion, gun control and gay rights. Both Giuliani and McCain support the president's surge policy in Iraq, even though they say the war has been mismanaged. Yet unlike McCain, who is going to the ramparts on immigration and the war, Giuliani is soft-pedaling his more unpopular views. "We don't all agree on everything, [but] we do believe in many of the same things," Giuliani regularly says on the trail. While acknowledging that several of his positions are out of line with Republican primary voters, the former mayor touts his ability to appeal to moderates across party lines to rebuild the GOP. Otherwise, Giuliani says, Republicans "are going to lose this election."
McCain and Giuliani have drawn similar reactions from leaders on the social right, including James Dobson, who has said he will not vote for either man. And both candidates have taken a hit in the polls lately. While Giuliani still leads the GOP pack, he's down by double digits in the latest Gallup poll compared with late February, when he began campaigning. (Back then, Giuliani polled at 44 percent among Republicans; now he's at 32 percent.) The decline is attributed to increased scrutiny of his position on abortion. McCain still runs a distant second place, and has lost some ground to Mitt Romney, who has gained in polls by positioning himself as a true conservative alternative.
Romney is at the other end of the conviction spectrum. In the past, when he was running to be the governor of liberal Massachusetts, he espoused views—on abortion and gay marriage—that were not conservative. Yet Romney has since moved to the right, which brings him in line with the base of his party. He insists the shift has nothing to do with politics, but he's left himself open to critics and opponents who call him a flip-flopper and an opportunist. "Romney is coming on like a freight train [in part because] he's filled a void with conservatives," says Republican strategist Scott Reed. "He's saying things they want to hear."
McCain has done his own courtship dance for social conservatives—reaching out to top evangelicals whom he once referred to as "agents of intolerance." But many still don't trust him. So now he's back to the straight-talking, party-busting persona that helped him win New Hampshire seven years ago. Immigration "has become a way for John McCain to show he's the old John McCain, the one who is not afraid to take a position counter to [his party]," says New Hampshire GOP chairman Fergus Cullen. But will that translate into votes? After the New Hampshire town hall last week, a local man confronted McCain, demanding to know why the immigration bill was the best thing for America. "I always do the right thing," McCain insisted, eyeing the television cameras that were filming the exchange. "And it always turns out all right. I know what the right thing is." After McCain walked away, the man shrugged. "I am a conservative," he told reporters. "Why would I ever vote for John McCain?"