The Return of the Partisan Campaign

Photos: Charles Ommanney / Getty Images for Newsweek (left); Khue Bui for Newsweek

Evan Thomas, Holly Bailey and Jonathan Darman write in this week's NEWSWEEK about the return of the partisan campaign:

Campaign staffers and paid consultants can be patronizing to the candidates they "handle." In the cynical view of the wise guys who run campaigns, the candidates are softhearted amateurs who can't be trusted not to wander from the disciplined message of the day, or who become all mushy and weak-kneed when it's time to attack the opponent. This seems to have been the attitude toward John McCain in some quarters of his campaign in recent days. A front-page article last week in The Washington Post was headlined AS AIDES MAP AGGRESSIVE RACE, MCCAIN OFTEN STEERS OFF-COURSE. The article was likely fed by Republican Party operatives who were frustrated by McCain's tendency to undercut or talk over his attack lines by being a candid or forgiving human being. When McCain offhandedly described Obama's plan to withdraw troops from Iraq in 16 months as a "pretty good timetable," GOP advisers moaned that he was ruining his attack on Obama as naive on foreign policy. The problem, in the view of campaign strategists, isn't the message—bashing Obama as arrogant and out of touch. Rather, "it's the candidate," says a "GOP strategist with close ties to the campaign," anonymously quoted by the Post.

It's clear McCain's handlers are determined now to keep him "on message" and not allow much spontaneity to creep into his performances. They can't persuade him to give up town halls, but last week he was noticeably kept away from the national press corps, whom he once called his "base." Although McCain requested that a couch be put on his campaign plane so he could sit around with reporters as he did on his Straight Talk Express bus during the primaries, the couch has lately been occupied only by overflow staff. McCain looked cranky most of last week, as if he could sense the potential harm he was doing to his reputation as a high-road politician.